It's time to tackle an issue that looms large in most organisations - a genuine 'elephant in the room' - the obsession with "reporting" that we see in almost every business we work with.

Why? To what end? What do your reports tell you? What action do you take, based on their content?

Can you honestly tell us that your 'weekly report pack' provides you with clear insights to your world?

If you can, then please respond to this post with a short summary - it would be great to hear from a business which can actually say "Yes, we get just the reports we need - not too many, nor too few - and we use the information in those reports to run the business". It just doesn't happen... and the blame is placed anywhere but the true cause (revealed later... read on...), with fingers pointed at:

  • The IT team (the usual prime suspects) - 'they' provide the reports, so they must be the reason for report dissatisfaction
  • The finance team - after all, they come up with most of the numbers, don't they?
  • The reporting package - it just doesn't do what we need it to... if only it sent the reports to my iPhone / Blackberry / iPad / bin (delete as appropriate) 
  • The data - it's all wrong, and there's no consistent definition (... actually this is often a legitimate concern, and a good subject for a future post)
  • Consultants - well, it's good to blame us, we were only there temporarily :)

The list of excuses/culprits/reasons for reporting dissatisfaction is long and ever-growing, but the root cause of the problem goes unnoticed. No-one ever challenges the 'reporting culture' - the idea that reading a few(?!) pages of numbers, and looking at a collection of multi-coloured (or multi-cross-hatched, if you're stuck with a black-and-white printer) Excel charts is somehow going to explain the subtleties of your business.

Everyone has bought the "if I measure it, then I can manage it" story (interestingly, Deming - to whom this is often attributed - never said it... indeed he railed against management by numbers alone), without asking themselves whether the story is valid, or even whether the reports they generate provide the measurements they believe they need!

The problem with reporting... is reporting itself. Pages of numbers, and isolated summary graphics, do not lead to insight, understanding and knowledge.

Visual analytics is anti-reporting - it strives to encourage people away from passive receipt of poorly understood numbers, and lead them towards interaction with the data; facts which can be examined from many different viewpoints, simultaneously if required, in order to arrive at genuine insights which can be communicated to colleagues and acted upon by all.

Yes, it's a lofty goal - and undoubtedly the same high-level objective claimed as the target for the 'reporting culture' - but it has far more going for it, with one notable challenge. Firstly, the positives:

  1. Interaction - engaging with data, manipulating it and exploring it in close-to-real-time is a rewarding experience which encourages individual question-and-answer sessions of the data itself
  2. Visualisation - moving away from discrete numbers, to multi-dimensional visual forms, brings the power of human visual perception to bear on the complex patterns that we seek in our business data
  3. Exploration - the amalgam of interactive visualisation delivers an environment where the genuinely interested can explore data at will, encouraging the 'analyst' to look behind the initial numbers and drive into the temporal, geographic, categoric etc. factors that suggest explanations for standard, and exceptional performance
  4. Absorption - exploring data, patterns and hypotheses at speed leads to a rapid, sponge-like absorption of information, leading to tested, evidence-based knowledge

The primary challenge faced, however, when introducing the visual analytics approach is finding 'analysts' who can think creatively - the most important skill required to make use of information. We have never yet found a correlation between job title / responsibility and analytical ability - even a significant proportion of the 'analysts' that we meet are really just repeating work that hasn't changed since the last strategy definition, and fail to articulate what the purpose of their analysis is.

The best of the people we train in visual analytics, and the tools we use, are truly excellent - they grasp the key concepts, and fundamentals of the tools, inside a day and are quickly engaging with their organisation's data and deriving fresh insights within a week or two. Unfortunately, they are the minority, and a great many data consumers struggle to articulate what they do with the data they receive today, or even what information they would like to access and explore in order to perform their jobs better.

Our solution? Break the 'reporting culture' and demand more of your people - one of our clients has made significant efforts to do just this, and the quality of the people that we engage with there is testament to the approach; almost all can think independently and creatively, and they all know what their purpose is, and what data they need to make informed decisions that result in action.

If you question the value of reports in your business, wonder how to gain a better understanding of key issues or opportunities, or simply disagree with everything we have said here, please comment and let us know - we would love to hear from you! 

AuthorGuy Cuthbert