Everything You Know About Reporting is Wrong

No-More-Spreadsheets  Movie quote of the week: “…It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them…”

What’s that movie and what does it have to do with reporting?

If you said Moneyball, you are correct.

As a self-professed data geek, I just love this movie for a couple reasons: 1. It highlights the use of data as a way to gain a competitive advantage; and, 2. It illustrates that a break from traditional thinking is sometimes needed.  I think it’s a great metaphor for what is happening…or needs to happen within the traditional reporting world.

The speed of business is such that senior leadership no longer have time (and probably never did) to review endless rows and columns of numbers trying to find insights.  Some years in the past, I was involved in a project that generated more than 20 different standard reports.  It was a never-ending death-march of endless enhancements to try to find the right mix of numbers that a variety of stakeholders found valuable.  Just when we thought we found the right mix, something would come along too prove it incorrect.  This example highlights the incorrect thinking of traditional reporting.

In a different (thankfully, more successful) project, I led an effort to eliminate many different permutations of standard “rows and columns” reports with an OLAP data cube.  We provided a few facts and 20 different dimensions.  After training a few “power users”, the change in the business was amazing.  Without help from IT, business users were able to uncover new insights from the data that they had worked with for years.

While this project was also a few years ago, it aptly highlights the benefits that business people value in business intelligence today:

  1. Self-Service – People want information to be accessible when they want/need it.  They don’t want to have to wait for the “end of the month report”.
  2. Data Relationships – Instead of seeing a bunch of rows and columns forcing the user to scan through alot of “noise” to find the information they really want, users want to sort and manipulate the data to find the real relationships.
  3. Ad-Hoc Exploration – Instead of being presented with a static set of data, users really want a lot of different “variables” or “dimensions” so that they can pick and choose the data to view.  This enables data visualization to see new relationships.

Now there is a new surge of tools riding the “big data” wave.  This is the opportunity to break the mold of what people have thought business intelligence is and provide real value.  Big Data, for all the hype, is nothing without context…and it only provides insight when meaningful relationships are found between different data sets.  Using new visualization tools like Tableau or Birst can provide self-service data exploration for users.  This approach can provide much more value and new tools are much cheaper, quicker to implement and easier to use than in the past.  That makes forgetting what you know and learning something new a whole lot more exciting!  …and who knows, maybe you can be the “Moneyball” for your company!

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Veteran technology professional and manager

Posted in big data, business intelligence

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