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Posts Tagged ‘View’

 

(contd.)

 

Before we get to the core, I must mention about an interesting solution that kind of addresses concerns voiced about mixing up business logic in Processing Reports. Recently I came across a case study where a MNC had the usual problem of reporting from a variety of dispersed and disparate sources such as Excel sheets, legacy ERP systems, etc. The reports were quite complex. And, there was no single container to host all the processing logic. The Organization deployed an ETL software that fitted the bill and loaded the data into a Reporting Database! This SQL database was used purely for reporting purposes only. On this database, they also built their business logic as a uniform interface and pulled out their reports. This architecture certainly fixed the problem of scattered business logic. The data is still transactional and the database was not a data-warehouse kind.

 

Even when there is a container application like an ERP instance to host the business logic and the reports, this solution may become an alternative meriting serious consideration when the reports are quite complex. The downsides to this approach are: a) introduction of an intermediate step and possible time delays b) the output business logic is still separated from transaction related business logic c) views may be generated from the ERP instance or from the Reporting Database – the challenge of making them look alike and d) the reports have to be coded explicitly instead of using the ERP-native report-generator. And, all the associated maintenance issues.

 

How would I, as an IT professional (not as a management consultant), go about if I need to rationalize the output system of reports (and views) for maximum business impact? An exercise that may be applied to a system of reports that exists already or to reports that are being planned for a new application. While some steps are obvious, some are not. The obvious steps (especially in a IT-mature organization) are included here for completeness:

 

         Compile a list of reports that need to be subjected to this exercise of rationalization.

 

         Develop the business purpose of each report. Weed out duplicate ways of stating the same purpose. Qualifiers are useful in generating variants of a business purpose: Shows payment-pending invoices by Region, Shows payment-pending invoices by Office, Shows payment-pending invoices by Customer, Shows payment-pending invoices by Product-line, and Shows payment-pending invoices by Period, etc. 

 

         One may or may not have the option of meaningfully (re)naming the reports pointing to their purpose.  

 

         Do a preliminary check if the information content of the report supports the business purpose. The depth of this check depends on IT professional’s knowledge of the business and best practices in the domain. 

 

         Generate a reference matrix showing reports and their users. These users are grouped under their functional silos: Finance/Accounts-Receivables, HR/Payroll, etc.

 

         Classify the users for each report: He may be a ‘direct’ or ‘responsible’ user using the report for managing his operations; Or a ‘supervisory’ or ‘accountable’ user using the report to review the operations with his team. An ‘informational’ user is merely informed by the report. This simple classification is adequate for most purposes.

 

         Revisit each report with its direct and the supervisory users. Validate the business purpose, the information content and the format – the format aspect of a report, though quite important, is not pursued further in this blog. There are some interesting and powerful opportunities at this step to restore true value: a) Check if the report is directly used by the user as such or if he does further processing to make it usable for its intended purpose. Very often, it is found, user makes some additional massaging to the numbers in the report: a missing summary or computing a ratio or a KPI, a comparison with a past period, etc. A significant efficiency contribution would to be to cut out this massaging b) More complex massaging is usually carried out in Excel. Can this be done away with or at least seamlessly integrated? c) This is an opportunity to ‘hard’ reconcile the supervisory perspective of a business aspect with the direct operational perspective. A no-brainer simplification is to ensure the Transaction Report goes to operating personnel and the related Summary Report goes to supervisory personnel and d) Review the list of ‘informational’ users of this report and reasons for their inclusion or exclusion. Mark candidates for inclusion/exclusion.

 

         These done, take the discussion to the broad plane of user’s responsibilities how the reports support those responsibilities. This would reveal those ‘missing’ views and reports – potential for creating value. It is not unusual to find system outputs not covering the entire breadth of user’s responsibilities or his KPI’s.

 

         Review with each informational user, the list of reports he receives and his thoughts on inclusions and exclusions. Go back to the direct and supervisory users of the reports to finalize the ‘informational’ inclusions and exclusions. At this point, the report may even undergo some changes to suit the needs of the informational users or some missing reports may again be uncovered.

 

         Note that a report with multiple ‘responsible’ users especially from different functional silos strongly indicates multiple business purposes stated or omitted.  And a report with multiple purposes is a strong candidate for splitting.

 

         Multiple reports for same or related purposes are good candidates for merging. When the business purpose is quite specific (not generic like ‘highlights cost-overruns’) their distribution lists could still be different if they present different perspectives. Do they?   

 

         Develop an exhaustive list of abnormal events that could occur in each functional silo and across silos. Relate each event to the Exception Report that shows it up. This may reveal events with potentially serious consequences being passed through. It is also important to check a) if these events are pointed to at the earliest possible instant after their occurrence b) the reporting intensity is commensurate with the degree of abnormality and c) recipients of the reports include all users concerned with the origin of the events and the organization’s consequent responses. Without sufficient care here, process breaks could severely impair the organization’s ability to respond.

 

         A report-type view of the system of reports also throws up useful but gross pointers to some imbalances. Absence of Log Reports may readily indicate holes in statutory compliance or weaknesses in security audit procedures and in some cases even recovery capabilities. Few Exception Reports may point to, as we have already seen, a failure to flag down significant abnormal events in the operations and the ability to quickly respond. Are the operating and supervisory personnel adequately (not overly) serviced, covering their major responsibilities and accountabilities with Transaction, Processing and Summary Reports? Similarly, are business purposes adequately and powerfully supported? Are functional silos bridged optimally?

 

It would be interesting to see if some principles of project portfolio management could be carried into this exercise of rationalizing system outputs. 

 

Like we have rigor in design of database (ERD, normalization…), this appears to be a ripe candidate for proposing a formal model and practice both for design and importantly for ongoing review.  

 

In summary, rationalizing the system outputs has ready pay-back in terms of managerial effectiveness by: a) re-engineering the outputs for maximum out business impact and operational efficiency b) weeding out redundancies in outputs as well as their distribution c) discovering opportunities for filling gaps and creating value for the business and d) making up for debilitating process breaks.

 

Importantly, note that IT application boundaries, their technology platforms or deployment architecture do not pose any problems in carrying out this exercise. Since change is constant with businesses, this cathartic effort is not likely to be single-shot.  

 

A potential service offering of real value from CIO’s stable? It has a quick turn-around and for most part may not need face-to-face or travel.

 

(concluded)

 

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Reports and online views are organized presentation of information for ready comprehension and decision making. They form a major part of usable outputs of IT systems as the basis for managing the operations in an enterprise.  Yet, these outputs taken as a whole or individually are not subject to any kind of design rigor, except for their formats! Targeting this concern, this and a following blog introduce some basic concepts and build simple practices towards optimally designing this system of outputs. 

 

Today, reports are now viewable online and views are printable offline. Dashboards are a special kind of views that use graphic metaphors instead of rows and columns. The discussion here refers to reports and is equally applicable to other forms of ouputs. And the principles and practices outlined apply to reports that are planned ground up and developed for use and not to those reports that are designed and retrieved totally on-the-fly with a query-report engine or an analytics engine.

 

These ‘canned’ reports build up to a sizeable number in any application and have an abiding tendency to multiply weed-like much beyond the original plans. One only has to look at any ERP roll-out to see it in real, though this dangerous ‘disease’ is not limited to ERP solutions alone. Why is it a ‘disease’ and dangerous at that? Multiply the number of reports by number of recipient users and total them up to get total number of instances of these reports perused. Now multiply the number of instances of perused reports by 10 minutes (or some other number, less or more) which could be the average time any user spends with a report instance. This is the (crudely estimated) amount of time, possibly of the senior management, soaked up by these reports. Individually may not be very significant, but could collectively be quite substantial. In fact, it is simple to paralyze an organization without setting off alarms in any quarters – all that needs to be done is to ‘helpfully’ over-provision users in different parts of the organization with any number of reports!

 

The obvious remedy, common sense tells us, is to strongly question the need for any report and remove the redundancies. Before we look at the remedy more closely, let us look at what are these reports like and what are they generally used for:

 

a) Dump or Log or Scroll reports: these are records of every transaction processed by the application. There may be additional records showing the trail of events before and after the transactions. These reports are mainly used for statutory reasons, audit purposes, as historical archive and, sometimes, for information recovery (When the primary purpose is information recovery, the Dump may not be human-readable and is usually processed by a system utility. It is no longer considered as a report).   

 

b) Transaction Reports: these are reports of transactions filtered by some selection criteria, sorted, summed up and formatted. Prior period data may be included for comparison. These reports are of informative kind: which product sold how much in which region, which parts were supplied by a vendor, which orders were processed by a machine shop, etc. A drill-down facility may be available to track down the details of a transaction across functional silos. Usually these reports do not process the data beyond reporting them as such, except for some totaling or calculating percentages.  Useful for managers to monitor operations under their supervision. 

 

c) Summary Reports: these reports abstract out the transactions and focus more on various kinds of summaries of transactions. Of course, the drill-down may show underlying transactions. These reports are used by senior managers to monitor the performance of their areas of operation at an aggregate level. Dashboards could be placed under this type.

 

d) Processing Reports: these reports, as the name implies, may include significant amount of processing on underlying data. This processing is distinct from merely crunching the data for presentation by way of charts and graphs. Senior managers may use these reports to look at scenarios that are not intrinsically modeled in the enterprise applications. A typical example is to pull out raw data and apply some adjustment rules and produce final adjusted numbers. The downside to these reports is the danger of mixing up processing with presentation. In this way, processing is fragmented and is not standard across reports, leading to problems of reconciling different reports that work on the same data. For example, two reports on resource utilization may differ depending on how they process the utilization data. One may round off to nearest weeks and the other may process the data as is, in terms of days, without any round-off.

 

Often in ERP rollouts, loading good amount of processing logic into reports is a common practice, fearing the formidable alternative of customizing the ERP.

 

It is another matter that when the enterprise model is complex as with ERP solutions, reports (not limited to processing reports) may differ simply on where they pull their data from (ignoring for a moment differences in processing the data as mentioned above) and enormous efforts are wasted on reconciling the different reports. Going back to the example of reporting on utilization of human resources, the report pulling data from the HR function would not easily match with the report pulling data from the Projects function.

 

e) Exception Reports: these reports, different from alerts, draw the attention of operating personnel and managers especially to deviations from the established operating norms. It is easy to envisage exception reports in every aspect of operations. Example: A report recommending replenishment of specific stock items.  

 

And some of them are not directly related to the operations. For instance, exception reporting is very effective in spotlighting data validation and integrity errors for subsequent data correction. Security aspects like attempted security breaches are usually reported as exceptions.

 

The above taxonomy of reports is sufficient for the purpose of discussion here even if it is not all-inclusive. The report types are not mutually exclusive. A report on ageing of customer’s pending bill payments could be first considered as an exception report in as far as it is highlighting abnormal situation for follow-up. It may also qualify as a Summary Report. The function overrides the form.

 

Reports usually push for some organizational responses. Transaction and Summary Reports focus on performance of one or more entities and their interplay and provide the basis for some broad-based follow-up actions. Exception Reports provoke pointed actions to handle specific deviations. Dump Reports do not trigger any immediate response.     

 

With this background, we are ready to go back to the ‘disease’ and the common-sense remedy we talked about earlier.

 

At this point, it is more interesting to look at reports or views, taken as a whole or individually, in an enlarged perspective of how aligned they are to the business and not merely for the purposes of curbing the excesses. The impact of closely aligning the outputs to the needs of the business  would be positively beneficial, given that the organization depends mainly on these reports and views for life-signs and to manage its head to tail.

 

As mentioned at the outset, surprisingly, from a software engineering (or is it information engineering?) perspective, this important piece of an organization’s information systems has not been subject to much design rigor, formal or otherwise to optimally arrange for business alignment.

 

Will set off on this un-rutted path in a soon-to-be blog.

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