Reporting is a big part of any organization’s day-to-day activities. It is the most common requirement across various departments, may it be IT team or executive team. For media agencies, reporting provides performance measures, BI insights and decisive power. Of course, per organization and per department, your reporting frequency, data sources and everything in between will change, but it is still a basic need. We always say, “change is constant.” Reporting is a way to measure this constant through available data. It only makes sense to provide some automation for this common and constant factor, which will take away pain from everyday processes while providing mission-critical inputs. This begs the question: Can we completely automate our reporting?
Reporting automation is still a bit of a daunting task for companies, but there are some that have been trying to provide solutions to this problem for a long time. We’re close, but still a bit far from complete automation. I will focus on some of the challenges for a media agency like us to implement complete automation, but these might be common regardless of industry.
Let’s look at few of the challenges from the data input side:
- Lots of data sources.
- Very high data refresh rates per data source.
- Data segmentation is not unified across data sources.
- Lack of data cleanliness and integrity across data sources.
Now let’s find some challenges on the actual report-delivery side:
- No unified KPIs.
- Too much fragmented reporting.
- Inability to connect KPIs to actionable goals.
- Inability to provide near real-time reporting for business goals.
Strategies and Solutions
There are excellent solutions and tools available now to solve some report delivery challenges. A business intelligence application with built-in automated reporting can bring you the advantages of both approaches. These applications serve as a single source of truth for all end users and stakeholders. These tools communicate to multiple data sources via various data ingestion methods such as API, email, FTP and database. Simple connection of multiple data sources and easy creation of reports and dashboards allow users to get what they need with little or no help from IT. BI tools such as Tableau, Datorama, Domo, etc. are helping to build reporting automation from report delivery side. However, these are still tools and are only as good as their input data.
Most of the obstacles for reporting automation stem from input data not being clean or identified incorrectly. When data sets from different sources do not talk to each other, they create silo-ed reporting. This ultimately creates obstacles to building unified KPIs that matter to final business goals. Here are some of the simple steps that you can implement that will bring huge benefits to an organization’s goals and automation of reporting.
Determine naming conventions
It’s very important to have standardized naming conventions for your data across sources. This not only helps organize your data, but also helps tremendously to clean the data set from any source. Any anomaly in metrics can easily be found and traced back to the source if proper naming conventions are used. Not only this will help your reporting automation to be set on the right track, but it will help you identify and clean data sets along the path.
Identify common keys
To combine data from various sources, we need common keys among them. Hopefully before you’ve reached this stage, you’ve taken care of your naming conventions. Now, using those conventions, we need to identify a key for each data source which can be utilized to combine its data with other relevant data sources. This common key can be anything – your campaign name, the program name or the business goal name applied to reporting entities. Identifying such keys across sources is important for the next step. In cases where there are many-to-many relationships across reporting entities, we can always use look-up tables to create reporting segments.
Identify and unify KPIs
Once the above two steps are implemented, the underlying data starts to talk to each other. This not only sets us up to automate our reporting, but it also helps us identify data or data sets that are most important for the reporting stakeholders and the overall business. This data determines lot of different KPIs by each stakeholder. Such KPIs range from day-to-day operations that related KPIs to overall business goals. Once you start to see data and KPIs by sources, you can create some source-level KPIs for operational optimization, as well as some business -level KPIs which span across sources.
Identify the right tools
By talking to stakeholders and end users of these KPIs, you can determine data frequency and reporting expectations. Such discussions really help to identify the correct tools for reporting automation, which ultimately helps us build useful and mission-critical dashboards. The choice of tool can be different per industry or reporting need, as well. There is no one-stop solution for all. Having online reporting is a huge benefit for organizations such as media agencies. These factors will really drive the appropriate choice of reporting tool for your organization.
Ultimately, all of this really depends on getting everybody to agree on set strategies and common rules for reporting. This agreement determines the success of your reporting automation. For such automation to work, rules must be kept in check and input data must be sanitized by following these rules. This requires a big buy-in from stakeholders, as they are the ultimate users policing these rules on the data and who’ll be consuming this data.
There are a lot of tools in the market which promise reporting automation, but ultimately, these are still just tools, meaning they’re only as good as the data fed to them. It’s up to end-users and stakeholders to start tagging/identifying those data sets cleanly, then determine what matters most from the data. There needs to be an agreement on adhering to naming conventions, reporting rules and being vigilant about setting strategies for future growth. These simple steps in tandem with BI tools will definitely help achieve the elusive goal of reporting automation. This will get us very close to a good amount of reporting automation — if not 100 percent.