Ad-hoc reporting – a reality or a myth?

The light dims. The large screen in front of you is filled with menus filled with familiar data points, organized and neatly categorized. Here’s your geographical hierarchy. And there are your financial measurements, and over there, date perspectives from the regular calendar and your fiscal one.

The cursor moves effortlessly across the screen, and the smiling sales engineer flicks finger, truns a nob here, drag a box there, creating within seconds a report, just like the one your boss was asking you for two days ago. Here it is, constructed in front of your eyes with stunning graphs, charts and tables, drill downs, filters and all, by a single guy and within minutes. And here you are, two days after your boss requested the report, still trying to negotiate an IT resource who can work on this , maybe next month.

Behold the power of ad-hoc reporting. Information for the masses. Democratization and transparency for data. Nirvana. Or is this too good to be true?

The ad-hoc reporting hype reminds me sometimes of the paperless office hype. Computer and electronic documents will replace the need to use paper in the office. It sounds logical, and it kind of makes sense, but things really don’t work this way in the real world.

Ad-hoc reporting is certainly a powerful concept, but it can get over hyped sometimes. When people who are not data experts demand access to create their own reports, they usually overlook the complexities of the data. Many of them are not aware of these, and the few analysts, who are deep into the systems and the data, still tend to over simplify things.

In a typical department, there will be maybe 1% of the personal who will be able to actually leverage ad-hoc reporting capabilities. It takes deep knowledge and understanding of the domain and the data, something that typically only very few analysts would have, and a strong technical sense. Not only the data is hard, the tools are as well. While they demo well, and seem completely intuitive when used by a pro who have been using them for years, for a novice user, who may not be the most technically savvy, it can take many months of frustrating experiments before they can actually produce meaningful and sophisticated insights.

So, is ad-hoc reporting a reality or a myth? The tough answer is it can be both, and that depends on your organization, goals and needs. If you work in a low-tech company, where your core business operations do not require people to use sophisticated software, and you expect the masses to start creating their own reports to improve business procedures, you will most likely fail. You will be much better served with a custom build information portal, a BI embedded application or an intuitive dashboard that will appeal to your users, attract them to consume information, and spoon feed them with what they need to know. However, if you have a strong group of capable analysts who understand the systems and the data they generate, and are comfortable with operating complex software, they would probably good candidates for developing their own reports, with little or no IT intervention.

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