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How to create high-quality BI reports in 10 easy-to-follow steps

Transforming big data into knowledge that can constitute real added value to the business model of a company and which can be used to optimize financial processes is a challenge companies face daily.

It is then up to Business Intelligence to prepare this knowledge transparently and understandably in order to support decision makers with relevant information. For this purpose, data is prepared and visualized in a comprehensible manner in the form of reports.
For reports to deliver the greatest possible benefit, be created as quickly as possible and offer companies the desired level of information, it is important to frame clear and precise reporting objectives.

Over the years while working for various companies, I have put together a checklist that helps design the appropriate report. Even business representatives who formulate requirements can benefit from this checklist: the more points they have thought about before creating a specification for a report, the more smoothly and quickly can their tailored report be delivered.

1. What are the target groups for the report?

Companies often create reports for internal use, but reports can also be created externally for customers or suppliers to offer them added value or to raise their awareness of certain issues.

2. What is the focus of the report?

When visualizing figures, a report can place an operational, strategic or tactical focus. This creates added value both by providing historical data, aggregated and visualized as information (Business Intelligence), and by diagnosing the past (Business Analytics) as well as by deriving recommended action for the future (Advanced Analytics).
In my day-to-day work, I may for example design reports for e-commerce shops, which can include a clear presentation of which payment methods are the most popular, and how their market shares are developing. For example, the popular method of payment on open invoice is being used more frequently.

3. What information needs do decision makers have?

This is about how the data should be visualized. The more detailed the information needs of decision makers are defined, the better can the report meet their needs.
In e-commerce, for example, they could be interested in whether the distribution of payment methods differs significantly for existing and new customers.

4. How should the report be provided?

Reports can be sent both manually and automatically. Another option is the centralized provision within the scope of a business information center, which reduces the flood of e-mails in day-to-day business and at the same time ensures a common level of knowledge. The decision which of the three types of delivery will be used essentially depends on the size of the target group and frequency of delivery.

5. How often will the report be used?

The answer to this question determines how often a report is updated on the basis of available data. According to the focus, it could be updated multiple times a day, at the beginning or end of every day, weekly or at individually determined intervals.

6. How current should the data in the report be?

Depending on the requirements of the target group, reports could relate to real-time data, current data (near-time) or historical data (sometimes going back over several years). On that basis, there is then the issue of transferring and storing data in the systems. This usually also entails aspects of data protection and of development and operating costs.

7. What report type is required and appropriate?

The highly popular interactive report allows users to select their own filters and immediately see the corresponding visualization. However, this does not always make sense. Depending on the application, the requirements of the target group can be met with a statistical (paginated) report delivered as a PDF, or with a dashboard report reduced to KPIs.
If raw data is provided for further analysis, then data extracts (e.g. as CSV/Excel table) or direct database queries are a good choice. Another one of the many alternatives are mobile-optimized reports.

8. To what degree should the report be standardized?

Here, it ranges from the standard report defined above, which is produced for each target group according to the same principles, to specific reports tailored to the needs of the individual customer and to self-service tools, by way of which the user can adapt the visualization of the report to their changing needs at any time.

9. How should the data be visualized?

From the standard spreadsheet tool Excel, to specialized visualization software such as Power BI and to KNIME, R and the PDF of a paginated report mentioned previously, there is a range of visualization options. The choice of tools should ultimately be based on the answers to the aspects of this checklist.

10. What data sources do you use?

Data for reporting and analytics can be provided in various databases, and delivered as aggregates in the form of data marts, cubes, Excel or CSV files or connected via interfaces as an external data repository.

Overall, as an enabler for Business Intelligence and Analytics, reporting is more than just a buzzword. It is rather a task of many facets, which companies and the areas concerned need to actively and skilfully undertake in this dynamic competitive environment.

What challenges do you face when it comes to the specification, creation and use of BI reporting? I look forward to receiving your e-mails with your comments and remarks.

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