Don’t Shoot The Report
by Mike Garrett
Despite the introduction
of “intelligent” reporting interfaces, there will be a continued
need for individuals who possess good report-writing skills. For
the past 10 to 15 years, the business intelligence (BI) industry
has been focused on one primary objective: to empower business users
by reducing or eliminating their dependence upon IT resources for
access to the information necessary to understand and operate their
business – in short, to help make end users self-sufficient and
self-servicing. One of the primary solutions was, of course, the
whole concept of the data warehouse/data mart.
When the idea first emerged, the industry hailed the concept of
the data warehouse as the “final solution” to the pent-up demands
and frustration of millions of business end users who, for many
years, had been pleading with IT to provide some way, any way, for
them to get quick and easy access to mission-critical information.
Users were told that the solution to their problems had finally
arrived. However, it soon became apparent that this new way of doing
things would produce rather mixed results at best. As Wayne Eckerson
and Cindy Howson state in their article, Moving BI to the Enterprise,
“In reality, however, self-service business intelligence proved
overwhelming for all but the most sophisticated power users.”
Working closely with
business end users for the past 20 years, I encountered this reality
gap firsthand. I have trained and mentored hundreds of end users
on a wide variety of user interfaces into many types of both custom
and off-the-shelf applications, including spending the past four
years assisting business users in accessing data in an SAP BW warehouse.
Something I have seen repeatedly is an overestimation on the part
of IT decision makers of the capabilities of their end users. We
seem to think that if we simply clean the data and pull it together
in one place, then the users can just dive in, find what they need
and everyone will be happy. If my own experience is any indicator,
this has proven true for a select few, but not for most.
Before I continue, I need to make one thing very clear. Even though
my own experience is on the front end (report development and delivery),
I know what is required on the back end of the process and appreciate
the effort it takes to get disparate and oftentimes ugly data into
a form and place where it can be rendered usable for the end users.
In fact, I often refer to the reporting process as the “tip of the
iceberg” when reporting from a data warehouse. It is the part everybody
sees and can seem quite impressive until you go beneath the surface
and see the rest of the story. That said, it is important to emphasize
that I have a great appreciation for the skill and downright determination
required to assemble a properly designed data warehouse.
Just as the tip of the iceberg is the only part the ordinary mortal
ever sees, the same can be said of the reporting interface that
is used to look into the data warehouse: it is all the users know
or care about. In fact, nothing can be more frustrating for users
than to know that their IT department just spent many months (if
not years) carefully designing and constructing a data warehouse,
only to find out that it is not quite as simple to get the data
as they may have been led to believe. Thus, while the reporting
interface may indeed be the tip of the iceberg, let’s all keep in
mind what happened to the Titanic.
One of the more recent developments in business intelligence has
been the increasing number and popularity of what I would call “intelligent”
reporting interfaces. The granddaddies of them all were executive
information systems (EISs) and decision support systems (DSSs).
These have been transformed over the years into more sophisticated
interfaces such as dashboards, scorecards and key performance indicator
(KPI) tools. While I am personally excited about the potential of
these more intelligent interfaces for providing insight into critical
business performance factors, I don’t think anyone would suggest
they present a complete solution to the user community at large.
In my mind, it is because of one simple fact: the devil is in the
details. One of the unfortunate misconceptions about these high-level
“executive” interfaces is that decision makers would rather not
be bothered by low-level details. In an article entitled Reality
IT: A Big Myth About IT Needs, Gabriel Fuchs states the following:
“I have yet to see a senior manager that is content with an overview
of the business activities – unless he or she is incompetent. Any
and every competent senior manager that I have met always wants
detailed data for specific operations – and often on a regular basis.
Dashboards are great for management meetings, but whoever runs a
company based on this is not running a company for long.”
Consequently, let’s not be so quick to dismiss the report writer.
It would be a mistake to assume that these new interfaces, while
quite useful in their own right, will somehow negate the need for
ongoing operational (or detail) reports. My own opinion is that
for the foreseeable future there will be a need for individuals
who possess good report-writing skills. Additionally, in an SAP
BW environment, it is critical that your report writers utilize
a report (or content) development tool that provides the greatest
flexibility in information presentation options and integrates as
seamlessly as possible into your existing landscape (utilizing existing
InfoProviders and security models). In a future article, I will
discuss some of the leading report writing tools and look at how
well they do on both of these fronts.
Mike Garrett - Mike is a Senior Consultant with the SAP Practice
at the Data
Management Group. He has more than 20 years of experience in
the IT industry and has worked in a wide variety of capacities,
including technical pre-sales, training and consulting. He has been
specializing in SAP BW third-party reporting solutions for the past
four years, working primarily with the Crystal/SAP BW solution set.