In the critical early stages of an enterprise reporting initiative, managers and stakeholders can benefit significantly by focusing on the basics.
Let's begin, then, with a clean slate. We'll first define the three basic kinds of reporting that practically every business needs. Then we'll look at the options for providing these reports and best practice considerations for choosing between these options.
Operational Reports: Operational reports directly support the ongoing operation of a system. They collect transactional data in order to enhance operational efficiencies. This reporting category includes transaction-level reports on matters such as manufacturing production, orders entered, billings, inventories, technical problems and transportation logistics.
These reports are used by people with responsibility for improving operations. They provide task-oriented line-item information on individual transactions at the very granular level of detail required for operational management. Such reports can be useful for:
- Verifying that the entries made to the system were balanced.
- Confirming that the intended information was entered.
- Providing a list of action items, such as a pick list in a shipping department.
Tactical Reports: Tactical reports are intended for monitoring and responding quickly to a variety of short-term situations. Reports in this category could focus on:
- Orders processed or manufacturing production for last week and projections for this week and next week.
- Absentee rates for last week and projections for this week and next week.
- Advertisements scheduled to run today, tomorrow, this week or next week, along with margins expected to be generated by these advertisements.
Such reports may need to combine data from multiple operational systems or store attributes that are not resident in the operational system because they are not required for operational processing.
Strategic Reports: Strategic reports may measure the same entities as tactical reports; but they may also deal with more strategic financial, sales and productivity data and stretch the analysis over longer periods of time.
Examples of the areas covered in strategic reports include:
- Revenues and other financial measures by customer, location, channel and product.
- Productivity by manufacturing unit.
- Costs of various resources such as labor, materials and facilities.
Strategic reports compare measures like these over lengthy time periods such as:
- Month-to-date or month-end for the current month versus previous months; projections for future months.
- Year-to-date or year-end for the current year versus previous years; projections for future years.
Now that we're clear on the kinds of reports we'll need, let's look at the best practice approaches for the three types of reporting.
Operational Reporting Directly from the Operational System: Because operational applications contain data from individual transactions at the granular level, the most direct approach to operational reporting is to build report generation into the operational system.
However, built-in packaged reporting solutions purchased from vendors have some major limitations:
- Vendors cannot anticipate all of the operational reporting needs that might be required for any business environment.
- Vendor solutions are restricted in their ability to integrate data from other systems.
- Vendor solutions may put an undue load on the operational system that interferes with operational and reporting performance. When a reporting query and an operational update try to access the same data at the same time, both operational and report processing can be subject to slow response or failures.
Packaged reporting offers the advantages of relatively fast implementation and lower development cost if you are confident that packaged reports will fill your current and future needs.
Operational Reporting from a Separate Repository: When you need the power to report on any aspect of your operational system – now and in the future – or to integrate data from multiple systems, the best practice solution is to create an external data repository for your operational data. There are two major alternatives.
Mirroring: The mirroring approach requires you to create and maintain an exact copy of the operational data. Mirroring replicates all of the data in the operational system, rather than filtering out only the data required for reporting. As your database grows, so will your repository. Your processing, hardware and staff costs will grow to support increasing replication, access and data storage requirements.
A mirrored repository may be practical in the limited number of cases where the operational system fully supports your current and projected reporting requirements and you can afford the significant resources required for support.
Custom Repository Structure: Building a custom repository structure allows you to filter out and store only the data you need. A custom operational repository can filter out data such as extraneous tax data, price data, descriptive attributes about the ordering customer and the operator, and obsolete data. With a custom structure you can archive and delete data as it ages and retain only the data that is of interest.
Tactical reporting must always reside on a platform external to the operational application and must also be separate from any operational reporting repository you may maintain. There are many reasons for requirement.
First, the data must be stable over the time frame of days or weeks required for tactical analysis, so that results will be consistent across reports from a variety of perspectives. This kind of analysis cannot be performed on operational data, which is subject to constant adds, updates and deletes.
In addition, tactical reporting must be structured to put data from operational transactions into the appropriate business context for each purpose and audience. For purposes other than operational management, this level of detail would be distracting.
Tactical data structures also group data depending on the needs of the user community. For example, while "customer" may consist of multiple related entities in the operational application, these should be consolidated in the tactical repository at a level consistent with the business user's view of the business.
Tactical data structures may need to include data that is not relevant to operations and, therefore, not available in the operational system. For example, users may want to be able to analyze many descriptive attributes of a customer.
Finally, tactical repositories must be designed for performance. Compared to operational reporting, tactical analysis requires the application to work harder – reading, sorting, grouping and displaying a greater number of database rows. The data needs to be structured to perform this processing at the required level of speed and efficiency.
Designing a successful strategic reporting system requires considerable expertise. Care must be taken to ensure that the system is not encumbered by the calculations that may be required to produce strategic financial, sales and productivity measures. The reporting application must not be required to read and aggregate data from hundreds of rows of data stretching over months or years.
In many cases, the best way to avoid performance problems is to calculate/aggregate strategic summary data before loading the repository. For instance, if your strategic reporting calls only for the total price, you could add the sale price and sales tax and load only the total price into your summary tables.
Separate summary tables for tactical and strategic purposes can be created to enable both strategic and tactical reporting from a single shared repository.
Because quality reporting is an essential business requirement, it is important to take a best practices approach that will increase the probability that your reporting initiatives will be successful. The guidelines provided here will help you clarify the types of reports you need and evaluate your options for obtaining them.
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