Reports: a waste of time?

At a previous place of work, we had a central reporting server containing hundreds and hundreds of reports, covering every section of the business. Manifestly, reports are vital to running a company, especially a finance company that essentially makes its money by shifting data from one database to another. One day, a colleague decided to spring-clean the whole reporting structure, and what better way to start than pruning the dead wood, getting rid of reports that were no longer used — there have got to be at least a few, right? What he found was pretty astonishing: 95% of reports hadn’t been looked at in the last 3 months. Ninety-five percent! (Maybe some of those were quarterly, six-monthly or yearly reports; everything was archived, not actually deleted, so could’ve been re-instated if necessary. I don’t remember that happening.)

The lessons were clear: managers were asking for reports to be built, when they didn’t need them. Either they never needed them, or one-off data pulls would’ve sufficed. Now, reports aren’t free, they cost time and money:

1. Initial planning — any of: a quick chat, an email, a meeting, a proper design spec, a full project plan.

2. Writing the query behind the report, which is never as simple as SELECT * FROM Table WHERE CreatedDate BETWEEN @StartDate AND @EndDate. Often, data from different servers needs to be brought together, which involves asking a DBA to replicate data (something else that has to be managed and tracked). The query will undoubtedly involve some level of aggregation, which may mean creating new tables and scheduled jobs to keep the aggregate data refreshed (another place where milestone tables come in handy).

(Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a comprehensive, well-maintained data warehouse, then the above might be greatly simplified.)

3. Writing the report itself, which might be a matter of minutes, or could take days if the output has to be, say, formatted for printing, and/or has hierarchical expand/collapse functionality, and/or has many input parameters, especially if they affect the layout as well as the data that gets returned.

4. Testing the report, deploying the report, getting it emailed out on a schedule, etc., etc.

Reports aren’t free, and to realise that 95% of anything was ultimately unnecessary, is as hugely annoying for the report writer, as it is for their manager who could’ve used their resource elsewhere.

So, lesson learnt, and the company went forth with a steely resolve to ensure that reports were only built if the business need for them could be proved beyond doubt, and this came to pass. Dozens and dozens of new reports were built, but each one was vital, and had a clear purpose.

You might be able to guess the next part… The same spring-clean exercise was repeated again, over a year later: 80% of the reports hadn’t been looked at in the last 3 months.

What’s to be gleaned from this? At the heart of it, is still the issue that reports are perceived as ‘cheap’. The only way to prevent this level of waste, is … somehow levy a charge on the original requester? Incur a penalty if reports go unused? Accept the whole situation as inevitable? I don’t know the answer. If you have any practical ideas, please let me know in the comments.

Some footnotes:

1. During the periods in which these reports were going unused, the business was constantly learning and changing. If, prior to the first exercise, I’d have been asked to guess how many reports weren’t used, I’d have said 30-50%.

2. I’m not trying to imply that my previous workplace was sloppy or inefficient, it wasn’t. I’ve seen this happen more than once, it’s just that the numbers were so striking that time.

3. The cleverest people I’ve ever worked for didn’t require lengthy reports to help them perform their duties, they could often elicit the truth from a handful of numbers. A skill I will always be envious of!



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