DATA ANALYTICS

How to Implement Ad-Hoc Reporting Without Driving Your Data Department Crazy

rachel serpa sigma computing headshot

Rachel Serpa

Director of Content Marketing, Sigma

You know ad-hoc reports provide value to your company. But when you’re constantly being bombarded with requests, it can feel like you’re living in “report factory hell.” You’re continually interrupted by other people’s emergencies, which produces stress. And because you have other high-priority things to do besides delivering ad-hoc reports, insights are often delayed — so important decisions are made without data. The situation isn’t good for anyone. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at how you can implement ad-hoc reporting in a way that delivers important insights for your domain experts across marketing, sales, and other departments without wreaking havoc on your sanity.

What is ad-hoc reporting?

First, let’s define ad hoc reporting. Ad-hoc reporting is reporting on demand. Typically, a company’s domain experts receive ongoing reports with KPIs and other metrics they’re regularly tracking. But this data often prompts new questions. Unexplained trends or insights appear in the data, and without asking followup questions, domain experts don’t know what’s causing those trends or insights. To take meaningful action or make informed decisions, they need additional answers. So domain experts fire off requests to the data team for more information. The data team then comes back with the desired ad-hoc reports.

Which brings us to a pair of questions, “Do companies really need ad-hoc reports? Couldn’t they just rely on standard dashboard data?” After all, today’s software offers robust dashboard reporting that’s easy for anyone in the company to use. Domain experts can even set up their own dashboards. But there are limitations to dashboards, even the best ones — most significantly, the inability to ask followup questions.

How ad-hoc reports differ from dashboards

With ad-hoc reporting, domain experts can get answers to any question they ask. Ad-hoc reports reveal the important insights needed to make informed decisions. Dashboards, on the other hand, populate data according to set parameters. There’s no ability to pull up additional data beyond those parameters. As a result, domain experts are left to guess why trends occur. And relying on guesswork is never good for decision-making.

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Ad-hoc reporting challenges

Traditional ad-hoc reporting creates a chaotic environment for data teams due to two significant challenges.

 The skills gap

In most companies, producing ad-hoc reports is the sole responsibility of the data team, simply because diving deeper usually requires a knowledge of data engineering and SQL. Domain experts aren’t equipped to do the work. So the ability to build ad-hoc reports is limited to very few people. This scenario creates a BI bottleneck, slowing down both data and business teams. Productivity remains low and everyone is waiting on answers.

 An endless report queue

There are many domain experts who need answers and insights for decision-making, but there are only a few people on the data team. This leads to endless report requests from business teams. And because most decisions must be made quickly, domain experts can’t wait days or weeks for reports. So data teams are inundated with urgent requests and have no way of prioritizing requests because they’re all needed “now.” They simply don’t have the capacity necessary for traditional ad-hoc reporting at the scale most businesses require. 

Solution: Open ad-hoc reporting to everyone with self-service analytics

While it used to be that there were no alternatives to dashboards or traditional ad-hoc reports, that has changed. Today, self-service BI and analytics tools like Sigma allow domain experts to create their own ad-hoc reports, without experience in data engineering or knowledge of code.

Here’s what to look for in an ad-hoc reporting tool if you want to free your data team from report factory hell and, at the same time, give domain experts the power to get the answers they need, when they need them.

What to look for in an ad-hoc reporting tool

 Ability to drill down into details and pose additional questions

Basic to the purpose of ad-hoc reporting is the ability to dive deeper and ask followup questions based on top-level data. Domain experts should be able to find the answers they need, without limitation. This means you’ll want a tool that provides domain experts with access to the data driving dashboard visualizations and reports, whether that is a drill-down chart or access to the underlying worksheet.

 Ability to manipulate queries and formulas

Often, new questions come from a query or formula that’s just been run. So domain experts need to be able to manipulate queries and formulas with other variables. A good self-service analytics tool should make it easy for them to manipulate data in an environment they are familiar with—like a spreadsheet.

 No technical skill requirements

Business users are not data engineers. They shouldn’t need to learn SQL or other technical skills in order to use the reporting tool— just as data teams shouldn’t be expected to possess the domain expertise of a marketer, salesperson, or product manager. Yes, some training will be required, but this training should be able to be done in days or weeks, not months or years. A solid self-service analytics tool should reduce the learning curve for business users and ease the burden on the data team by eliminating coding requirements to get the answers.

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How to implement ad-hoc reporting at scale

When you’re implementing a democratized ad-hoc reporting tool, there are steps you can take for a smooth rollout. Here’s what we recommend.

Deploy an ad-hoc reporting tool that empowers people beyond the data team. First, ad-hoc reporting at scale can’t happen efficiently without using a tool that gives business users the ability to create their own reports without technical skills.

Teach data skills. Business users will need to be taught basic data skills in order to get relevant insights. Companies should create a data literacy program or course that increases these skills across the organization.

Train users on how to use the system and how to find reliable data they can trust. Business users need to understand how the data warehouse is organized, know where they can find data “endorsed” or “badged” by data teams, and learn how to use the tool.

Adopt strategic data governance. Data governance must be strong enough to ensure accurate, relevant data, but flexible enough that bottlenecks aren’t created in the process. Recognize the balance between standardization and speed and decide what’s right for your company.

Empower your company with democratized ad-hoc reporting

By democratizing ad-hoc reporting, you’ll deliver massive value to your company. It frees your data teams to focus on important work that’s been pushed aside because it’s not urgent. And it allows domain experts to get the insights they need in a timely manner for better decision-making. When your people are making better decisions, you can build a better organization.

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