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Posted: September 25, 2012

Five signs you might be a reporting zombie

Here's how to stop the death march

Mark Donnelly

One of life’s paradoxes revolves around our tendency to mandate order by creating rules, reports and regulations that leave us worse off than before.

Traffic is an everyday example of this phenomenon. Long before anyone attempted to study the way people behave in traffic, we were making rules to reign in the chaos. In fact, in the early 1900’s, coroners began to abbreviate the cause of death from traffic fatalities to “k by c” or “killed by car” to save ink. But according to the late Hans Monderman, the very rules created to make driving a safer activity turned us into zombies and made driving more dangerous.

Monderman held that we are much safer drivers when we have a few basic rules and wide latitude of individual freedom. He even went as far as putting a playground in the middle of a roundabout with no road signs to prove his point that the environment itself was more effective in influencing behavior than signs most ignored and regulations were unknown. Driving has become so routine that we tune out road signs, increase the music volume, and move with the speed of a cheetah but mass of an elephant. If any outside influence interrupts our driving bliss or stupor, we almost certainly experience road rage, and often a dangerous situation.

The growth of Business Intelligence is similar to our experience with the adoption of the automobile. As our ability to capture data, create analysis and make reports expands at a breakneck pace, we are spending very little time examining the impact of this force on the psychology of individuals and groups. Think of the last time you tried to interpret Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), or just tried to forecast the future based on some technical analysis of the past.

Much of the analysis and reporting created by analysts throughout an organization is mandatory or regulatory, and once created, a report good, bad or ugly, never dies. Most analysts quickly discover their credibility can be measured by the number of reports they create. Their names even get attached to them. The managers using the analysis to make “information-based” decisions quickly find their bandwidth consumed by an inbox full of reports, while analysts complain the reporting death march leaves them little time to think or pursue ad hoc analysis.

The appeal of elegance is obvious in the design and marketing of a consumer good, where pocketbook voting quickly creates winners and losers, but this process is limited and slower when it comes to internal information flow in a business. Before your organization starts to create reports, regulations, or policies, ensure there are ways to eliminate or retire these things before report rage sets in.

Here are five signs that you may be a reporting zombie and ways to alleviate the madness:

1. Your inventory of reports would be a challenge for the Library of Congress to manage.
All reports need an expiration date. To block the renewal of non-regulatory reporting, every report that is not culled should be recreated from scratch in case the scope of the underlying data has changed.

2. You are looking at more than three reports a day.
Subtract or change reports to be delivered only when an exception occurs. Like the air pressure in your tires, it only becomes reportable when it is too low, high, or changing quickly. When it’s normal, there is no need for a report.

3. Excel is your primary reporting infusion device.
Excel is the wet wipe of Business Intelligence, and is great for cleaning up messes. Beyond that, you need a BI system that feeds itself and delivers information with a low level of intervention.

4. You have a rule in your inbox that funnels automated email reports to a special folder.
It’s important that you alter reports so they are delivered only when an exception occurs.

5. You have to print out a report, because it won’t fit on your monitor, or is too hard to read.
Report design is like real estate. If your key report consistently pushes relevant information off the screen, it will be missed.

As people move into more executive level positions in any organization, they are expected to use reporting of some sort to lead and manage the people, processes and things that make up the organization. This means less front line contact where dealing directly with a customer or vendor at an individual level is replaced by reporting. In a physical environment, opportunities and threats are identified and processed without considerable effort. The key to managing a reporting or alerting system with your organization is making your business intelligence feel natural, and not turn its user in to reporting zombies.
 

Mark Donnelly is Manager of Business Intelligence at Red Door Interactive, a strategic partner with more than a decade of expertise in successfully developing and executing communications initiatives across all touch points to deliver real, measureable results. Clients include Cricket Communications, CND (Shellac), Rubio’s Restaurants, Inc. and Charlotte Russe. E-mail him at MDonnelly@reddoor.biz.

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