Thursday, 14 January 2010

How to ensure efficient use of a reporting portal

Trying to name this blog presented me with a challenge. Upon registering with blogspot you need to give a web address (* to your blog. I endured 12 unsuccessful attempts to move into the world before I finally settled into my new home at

During my 12 unsuccessful attempts, only 1 of the blogs was an active blog with a reasonable amount of content. The rest were either blogs that haven't been updated since 2006, or blogs with 1 or 2 short posts in, not having been touched since the day of their creation.

This got me thinking about Business Information, and in particular about Reports that are published to some kind of Portal. The majority of organisations I have worked with tend to utilise some form of centralised portal that business reports are published to. This could either be a web portal on the company intranet, or a self-service portal that forms part of an enterprise-wide BI tool, such as Business Objects or MicroStrategy.

These portals are an essential component of the BI Landscape, and a great information delivery method to allow the business to serve itself with accurate, timely, insightful information, without the need for further IT intervention, delays, or confusion.

However, what I have seen in many organisations is that due to rapid growth and lack of governance many of these portals have become free-for-all dumping groups, with little structure or consideration to whether reports have been validated to contain accurate, timely information. They may contain duplicate versions of the same reports, test reports, or even reports pointing at redundant data sets.

How can the business users know that the report they are viewing is accurate, and contains valid information? Often, they can't.

This can result in a lack of confidence among business users:

How can we, as BI / Data Management practitioners, ensure that the portal method of information delivery breeds confidence and remains an efficient delivery method of information to business?

1. Monitor 'last refreshed' or 'last accessed' date

Most portals will give you the ability to look at dates that reports were last refreshed, or even when they were last accessed. This is beneficial in a number of ways.

Firstly, in the case of 'last refreshed' dates, the team (or person) responsible for the portal should look at introducing proactive monitoring of reports to ensure reports are running as, and when, expected. In parallel to this you should be educating business users to look at the date, and if a report is supposed to be daily yet hasn't been refreshed for 3 days, provide them with an E-Mail address or telephone number to contact to raise an issue, perhaps a BI helpdesk that will look to resolve their issues. It would be worth introducing SLAs (Service Level Agreements) to aid business users. For example, communicate that 'all daily reports will be refreshed by 9am, all weekly reports will be refreshed by 9am Monday morning'. Communication of any delivery delay or failure is essential in gaining business trust and confidence.

Secondly, a pragmatic exercise I have previously undertaken is to look at all reports on the portal, and temporarily remove all reports that have not been accessed within the past 3 months. These reports have been fenced off into a temporary storage area for 3 months, and if a business user does not complain that their report is missing, the report has then been permanently deleted. Due to the ever changing nature of business, reports are often created for a specific purpose, used heavily for a period of time, and then no longer deemed necessary, or are superseded by a new report. Often these old reports remain on the portal, taking up space and in some cases confusing users.

2. Introduce increased governance

The portal may have started with the best intentions in terms of governance, with the initial batch of published reports having defined owners, purpose, scheduling, definition etc. However, as the portal grew, this governance benchmark may not have been kept up, hence the reason business users are confused and test reports are being published to the portal.

An exercise of re-introducing governance standards to the portal, as well as providing education for the standards of future reports that will be published will help ease business concerns such as the questions I highlighted in the figure above.

BI Analysts should work with business users in order to ensure governance standards are maintained. For the purpose of Reports, I identified 4 streams that should be addressed in order to ensure efficient governance and business understanding of reports.

  • Purpose
    - Identify why report is needed (operational, KPI, KQI)
    - Identify what the business need is
    - Identify how it will be used

  • Ownership
    - Who will own the report?
    - Who is the primary contact?
    - Are they also responsible for potential report issues?

  • Classification
    - Is the report sensitive?
    - Does it require special permissions to view?
    - Is a confidentiality agreement needed?

  • Definition
    - What do the fields on the report mean?
    - Who has aided in defining the fields?
    - Has definition been signed-off as correct?

These 4 streams form the basis of a 'Standards in Report Creation & Publishing' document that could be introduced, and communicated across the BI/Analyst/Business community.

3. Introduce Kite marking

A further step into the world of report governance could be taken in the form of kite marking reports. Kite Marking is the process of stamping a report as a recognised source of accurate and approved data. A report could only achieve the kite mark standard once it has satisfied the standards defined in point 2 above, and once kite marked the business users would know that the report contains information of which they can be confident will support their business decisions.

4. Allow search of reports by keywords

The majority of portals allow for users to search based upon keywords. The reports on the portal should be named, or contain 'meta tags' for searching, so that business users can easily find what they are looking for. Often business users will request a report to be designed when there is an existing report on the portal that would provide them with the same information, however, they did not know this report existed. Educate business users to become proactive in searching for information on the portal, prior to raising a request for a new report.

Ensure that metadata exists that allows a business user to easily understand, in business terms, what the report shows, and how it should be used. Following on from this, if they have any questions or concerns, you should empower them to communicate with the owners of existing reports by ensuring that contact information for report owners is clearly displayed. Report owners are the 'subject matter experts' for that particular report, and we should ensure a culture exists that enables business users to utilise these subject matter experts to increase knowledge and confidence in information.

5. Ensure accurate metadata is in place

As mentioned in the previous point, it is critical that accurate and concise metadata exists for each report. This will allow a business user to easily understand what a report is showing, and how it should be used.

When I talk about metadata, I am specifically referring to metadata from a business perspective, such as:
  • A meaningful name of the report
  • Defined business terms for each field of a report
  • Information related to report owner
  • Business rules and any criteria applied to the report are clearly defined
These forms of metadata, where applicable, should be captured either on the report, or within a separate business glossary.

Due to the ever-changing nature of business, ensuring accurate metadata can be harder than it seems. Over time definitions and business rules can change. It is therefore essential that a regular routine exercise of maintaining metadata is undertaken. A report with out of date definitions or business rules could lead to data quality issues and poor decisions.

6. Introduce structure to portal

Structure is essential to providing an efficient portal to business users. There is nothing worse than having to scroll through a list of 400 reports to find the report you're looking for.

There are a number of different ways that a portal could be structure to improve efficiency to business users. For instance:
  • Reports could be stored by subject area, such as 'finance', 'sales', 'supply chain'
  • Reports could be stored in a 'daily', 'weekly', 'monthly' directory structure depending on how often they have been designed to be refreshed.
  • A combination of both
Think of the portal as a bookshelf, or a library, with the aim of enabling the business user to find the correct information they require in a timely manner.


Gordon Hamilton said...

Great opening salvo in what is sure to be a bloggeriffic career! Great set of best practices.

Randy McClure said...

Excellent post. Great ideas. I have seen too many times where companies have hundreds of report where many of them are redundant or one-offs, users do not know what is accurate or out-of-date, and they do not know or have forgotten why the report was created.

Phil Wright said...

Gordon, Randy, thanks for the comments.

Randy, I agree. I was recently in the middle of a heated conversation between 2 analysts relating to 2 different reports. Both reports had similar names, pertaining to give the same information, but were created from different data sources, and showing slightly different figures. Both analysts were adamant that their report was showing the correct figures.

As a business user, which report do you use, and can you trust the data?

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