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What's a Report These Days?

Published
  • May 01 1998, 1:00am EDT

It used to be that a report was a 200-page, green-bar printout produced by the Information Systems (IS) department on a regular basis. Sent through inter-office mail, these behemoths were best used as office doorstops or a source of confetti for a birthday party. Most business users flipped through the pages until they found the one or two data elements or pages they were interested in. If they wanted to do real analysis, they rekeyed this data into a spreadsheet and did their number crunching there.

But the nature and shape of reporting is changing in three major ways:

1. On-line Reports

Many companies are putting their paper-based reports on-line and giving users easy access to them via Web browsers. Paper-based reports will still be needed for regulatory and auditing purposes, but most individuals will be heading to the Web to access corporate information on-line.

This will have a significant effect on information usage at most companies because the majority of users today (approximately 80 percent) are most comfortable analyzing data in a report format. I call these users "information consumers" since they "consume" reports or analyses generated by others, typically power users or IS administrators.

2. Customizable Reports

Second, the industry is quickly moving away from mass-produced reports that serve the entire company, business unit or department to customizable reports tailored for and by individuals. End users will be able to "create" custom reports by filtering against a report "definition" created ahead of time by the IS department.

The report definition or template does not contain data--just the tables, columns, rows, calculations and layout formats that comprise a master report. These reports may represent a functional area, such as sales or marketing or a business or regional unit. The definition is presented to users as a pick list (i.e., HTML form, Java catalog, Windows universe, etc.). Users select the subjects, columns and parameters they want to view, and the report engine dynamically generates a custom report from back-end databases.

3. Interactive or "Drillable" Reports

Finally, these customizable reports will also be interactive. Most of the time, information consumers just want to quickly check a report (or chart) to see if the numbers reflect normal operating conditions. If everything seems okay, they move on to other tasks. However, if there is an aberration, users often want to drill down to more detail. Therefore, it's imperative that reports enable users to transparently access more detail. Ideally, users should be able to "click" on the aberrant number and zoom into a more detailed report.

Some reporting vendors have created this drill-down effect by hot-linking report files. However, these linked reports assume that IT administrators will know ahead of time exactly which reports to create and link together. A more elegant way to create what I call "drillable reports" is for the tool to dynamically check the report definition (i.e., "meta data") and generate a new custom report in response to the user request. Some tools may anticipate user requests and bring down extra data to the desktop. Others will support drillable reports entirely on the server by dynamically issuing database queries to provide the requested detail.

A "drillable report" represents the sweet spot in the decision support market today (see Figure 1). Some of the desktop tool vendors have come close to supporting drillable reports in a client/server environment. But most need to make the "drill portion" much more transparent, and they need to port this functionality to the Web.

Evolving Users

Change is never easy, and most users that have been weaned on paper reports will not adjust overnight to interactive reports. Ideally, a decision support tool should let individuals--as well as organizations--evolve gracefully from simple to sophisticated reporting and analysis environments.

A surefire recipe for disaster is to give information consumers an OLAP tool when what they really want and need is a simple reporting tool. Unfortunately, many IS folks and power users make this mistake because they are so enamored with the technology that they fail to see their users' real requirements (or limitations).

Nevertheless, it's clear that the nature of reporting is changing and for the better. By the Year 2000, many information consumers will view "reports" as on-line, customizable chunks of formatted data that they can interact with over the Web.

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