Ask a business intelligence professional what they do, and they might feed you a line about finding insights hidden in data. Ply that same BI professional with a cocktail or two, and they might just tell you the truth about their job: it can be full of tedium, busy work, repetition, and requests that are always urgent. Running and modifying SQL queries. Triple-checking all the formulas, v-lookups, and file links in dozens of Excel files. Updating every chart in the weekly report, every week. It’s enough to make anyone cross-eyed.
Creating dynamic visual reports from data can be enticing and even seem, to an outsider, a bit sexy. However, the majority of tasks performed by a BI professional (i.e. database analyst, data scientist, etc.) have more to do with the gathering and organization of data than making informed decisions. The kicker is the Sisyphean nature of the role: an endless cycle of data cleaning, data organization, data reporting, and data analysis. Over and over again.
Needless to say, business data and reporting is tedious, and, at the risk of sounding like a fifth grader, it kinda sucks.
Fortunately, there are ways to make it not suck anymore. The trick for how to improve data reporting is to identify key challenges, and to arm your team with the right tools (and the right mindset). This way, you will not only make better use of your data, but also make it easier for your BI analysts to do the job they were hired to do.
Top 5 Reasons Why Data Reporting Sucks (and How to Fix That)
Let’s recap: data reporting is tedious, requires incredible internal resources, and more often than not ends up outdated the moment it’s produced. Talk about a real morale killer right there. Fortunately, data reporting doesn’t have to be so bad. In fact, with the right fixes, it can even be (dare I say) fun. So, what can you do to restore your faith in metrics? First you need to identify the problems.
The Problem: Data is Outdated
Nothing is more disheartening for data reporters than to realize that the work they just spent hours creating is irrelevant by the time they present it to decision-makers. Yet, that is precisely what happens. Information is always changing, and metrics that were relevant even five minutes ago may not be relevant now. Needless to say, this can be a tad frustrating for those who spend days (or even weeks) preparing a single data report.
The Solution: Real-Time Dashboards
Dashboards update in real-time without any human interference. All you have to do is connect your data sources—Excel spreadsheets, CRM, database, wherever—and let them do all the work for you. The right dashboard tool will allow you to set refresh intervals, ensuring that your data is as up to date as you want it to be. Features like the iDashboards Excel Auto Uploader lets you set intervals as quick as 60 seconds to push new data into the Data Hub and into your online dashboards. You’ll never be stuck with outdated data during a presentation ever again.
The Problem: Reporting for the Sake of Reporting
Weekly data meetings can be beneficial, but only when your audience wants to be there and is invested in the conversation. Unfortunately, data reporting too often becomes another box to check in a long list of weekly to-dos. Instead of lively discussions and meaningful insights, meetings consist of glazed eyes and possibly a snore or two. Data presentation (or lack thereof) has a lot to do with this. As with anything that you stare at for too long—a computer screen, text, images—the numbers can all start to run together, resulting in indifference.
The Solution: Create a Data Story
By creating a data story with clear context and conclusions, you can not only maintain audience interest, but you can also engage your audience and get them to interact with your data. You can do this by using compelling colors, specific design elements, and animated graphics to capture audience attention and spotlight areas that you would like people to pay attention to, both good and bad.
Read next: The Art of Data Storytelling
The Problem: Asking All the Wrong Questions
Too many people rely on the numbers to give them all the answers, but the problem is that they don’t really know what questions they’re attempting to answer. Without understanding why you’re reporting data in the first place, it can be difficult to find any use for it. Worse, it can be difficult—if not impossible—for your team to make important insights (if any at all).
The Solution: Communicate
Yes, it’s important to identify KPIs, but even those are not specific enough. Ultimately, KPIs are just more numbers. If you really want to understand what you hope to gain from data reporting, talk about your goals. If you want your data analyst to present the insights you’ve been looking for, communicate with one another. Spend some time with your BI team and other managers to determine what you’re trying to achieve and which metrics you need to keep track of your progress.
The Problem: We Said/They Said
When you’re working with several different data sources, things can get messy quickly. Unfortunately, in this data saturated environment, mismanagement of this data is common. From inconsistency in data reports to improperly blended data, and from pulling metrics from untrustworthy data sources to forming data biases, it can be easy for companies to rely on bad data. Data is supposed to help companies make informed decisions, but when those companies rely on bad data, they risk falling victim to costly mistakes.
The Solution: Work From a Single Source of Truth
Establish a single source from which all of your company’s data is compiled and reported from. This might seem impossible, as multiple data sources can lead to silos, but the truth is it’s not far-fetched at all. With a tool like the Data Hub, you can organize, blend, and centralize your data, so you can ensure that metrics are accurate, no matter who compiles the ultimate report or dashboard. To further eliminate the risk of bad data, appoint a data steward—an individual tasked with ensuring the quality and credibility of data—to establish and maintain data governance processes.
The Problem: Reports Are Boring
At risk of sounding like a fifth grader again, it must be said: most data reports are boring. Data is supposed to get people pumped about making profitable changes, but endless numbers, lines, and pages can make people pumped about taking a nap instead. Which many do, instead of opting to read the reports. Considering traditional data reports can take so long to create, it can be pretty demoralizing to realize no one is actually reading what you’re writing.
The Solution: Create Dynamic Visuals
Data tells a story, but when it’s presented in the form of spreadsheets and numbers, it can be difficult (read: impossible) to know what that story is. A data visual that keeps the four basic elements of data viz in mind—concept, information, function, and form—can not only make it easier for audiences to understand the metrics placed before them, but it can make them want to understand.
When building your dashboard, start by compiling all of your complex insights and concepts into a single view that immediately conveys a message to the viewer. You can do this by establishing context through visual elements and by focusing only on the details that matter. Allow the audience the chance to engage with the data on a deeper level when they’re to, by allowing for drill downs to reveal greater details and more impactful insights.
If you continue to use the same old data reporting processes, data reporting will continue to suck. However, if you take the time to implement innovative data reporting processes and technologies, and if you allow your BI team to get creative with their reports, you may discover that data can actually be fun (and, you know, useful).