CXO

Tech leaders: it's time to stop shadow reporting and provide intelligent data

Dashboards were supposed to put an end to executive reporting woes; however, they have largely failed. It's time to rethink executive reporting.

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Image: iStock/DragonImages

Thanks to technology, executive reporting has come quite a long way, evolving from chalkboards to manually tabulated spreadsheets to real-time dashboards. In many cases, however, reporting remains a challenge, particularly at the executive level. Summary reports and dashboards that were supposed to alleviate reporting issues only increased demands for tweaked reports, and at this point you can walk into an executive-level meeting at most companies and find a dozen versions of personalized reports that present slightly different numbers for what should be the exact same metric. In other cases, dashboards that were supposed to simplify data become so complex that requests arise for consolidations of dashboards and additional layers of simplification that become a complexity unto themselves.

IT should be a smart data provider

Traditionally, IT has been an "end to end" provider on the reporting front, acquiring and consolidating data from various sources, creating and maintaining data repositories, and ultimately creating and maintaining the reports from those repositories. Often, this proves frustrating for both reporting producers and consumers. IT requires extensive overhead to gather requirements, estimate costs, and ultimately produce a dashboard that answered yesterday's question. This level of overhead often results in "shadow reporting" organizations embedded in business units, whose sole purpose is consolidating and repurposing IT-provided reports into something new.

Rather than attempting to own all aspects of reporting, IT should strive to provide intelligent access to company data. Help reporting consumers unravel the spaghetti of information systems and databases to identify the correct sources for key business metrics, and leave the dashboarding and report creation to those that actually consume the data.

In this role, IT essentially becomes a curator and consolidator of data, a role IT is well equipped to play, building standardized repositories of key data abstracts reporting from the source system, and ensuring everyone is using the same source of data.

How to reduce shadow reporting

Advances in reporting technology have allowed entire shadow reporting groups to arise, with staff dedicated to manipulating the "official" IT-provided reports to produce something that's more relevant to executives. What starts out as some capable staffer doing some spreadsheet manipulations can turn into entire teams that develop their own set of databases and tools to rework data into a more suitable reporting format.

There are two approaches to dealing with "shadow reporting." The first is to attempt to eliminate it, passing policies and prohibitions on using unauthorized reporting tools. This approach has some legitimacy in that the provenance and accuracy of these data is questionable; if the "unofficial" report has a 10% variance in sales from the "official" data, and executives are taking action based on the "unofficial" report, that could create a legitimate conflict of interest. However, in order to eliminate these shadow reports, IT usually must commit to building and maintaining an acceptable alternative, adding work to an already full plate.

The second alternative makes use of increasingly user-friendly reporting tools. Rather than attempting to keep reporting sealed within the walls of IT, these tools provide access to common, IT-provided data sets, yet let those closest to the consumers of the data create the actual reports. IT leaders might quip that they've had these types of tools for years, but comparing an IT-centric "business intelligence" tool to a modern data visualization package is night and day from a user perspective.

Training and licensing costs might be an initial cause for concern, but once you locate the "spreadsheet jockeys" who are performing amazing feats with tools like Excel, a modern data visualization tool and link to the online tutorials will be enough to have them wowing their bosses with exactly the reports they want, all without increasing the burden on IT reporting staff.

With an unending amount of data available at most organizations, the challenge has shifted from data acquisition to making actionable decisions from the wealth of data that are available in a rapid and responsive manner. Consider how you will move beyond yet another dashboard, to equipping reporting consumers with the tools and data they need to make timely and informed business decisions.

Essentially, rather than attempting to funnel any and all reporting requests through IT, an increasingly untenable situation as reporting needs become more exacting and timeframes shorter, seek to empower the community of reporting "super users" that already exists. Ultimately you'll be creating a win-win situation: reporting workload will be shifted from IT staff to business users, and the business community will perceive the move as IT providing a higher level of service. With IT managing and maintaining the data sources, and distributing common sources of truth, all reporting consumers should be operating from the same data, further increasingly the quality of management reporting.

Also see:
Tableau presents new ways of analyzing data
Alleviate data wrangling pain points with visualization tools
7 tools to help your company get started with big data
A DevOps dashboard for all: Capital One's Hygieia project offers powerful open source resource

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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