The Definitive Guide to Business Intelligence Reporting

Devon Tackels

Content Marketing Manager, Sigma

When elite runners cross the finish line, they may feel accomplished and relieved, but they’re still focused on an important piece of information: the race time. They remain curious to know how they performed. Like business leaders, they need data to evaluate their performance and results.

Along the way, runners may track their pace, their heart rate, and more. Post-race, they determine what they can do to see better results at the next race. Business teams want to improve their performance, see the impact of their work, create better products, and discover how customers are responding. But with so much information around, it’s hard to mine the data, filter the insights, and use them to improve.

Fortunately, with modern cloud data warehouses and self-service business intelligence reporting tools, data teams and business leaders alike can run queries and build reports as the need arises. This is one reason self-service is a top trend in business intelligence (BI). Done right, self-service BI reporting both frees up the data team for more strategic work and aids business leaders in making faster, more informed decisions.

Read on to learn more about BI reporting and how you can make it more accessible, understandable, and relevant to everyday and long-term decision making.

What is business intelligence reporting?

BI reporting is the process of preparing and analyzing data, extracting valuable insights, and creating shareable reports to better inform business decisions. The data you collect may come from any of your tools and platforms, including marketing automation systems, customer relationship management systems, finance platforms, and HR management systems. By centralizing those data sources in a data warehouse, you can query and manipulate the data and present it in report form.

Managed vs. ad hoc reporting

There are two main categories of BI reporting: managed and ad-hoc reporting.

  1. Managed reports are typically prepared for domain experts by technical employees such as data analysts or IT associates. These reports tend to be scheduled and reported at specific intervals, such as each week, month, or quarter.
  2. Ad hoc reports can either be created on-demand by the same technical employees, or produced by business teams with the help of a self-service BI solution — eliminating the need for technical teams to create new reports, or edit existing reports.

Common BI reporting challenges

Traditionally, these have been some of the most common challenges to data analysis:

  • Data wrangling – According to IDG, the average company collects data from more than 400 data sources. Tracking down the data across platforms and services takes time without the right automation tools.
  • Data silos – As you can imagine, data gets siloed in those disparate tools. Often stakeholders have access to the limited data within their domain, but cannot get a holistic picture of what’s happening in entirety across the organization.
  • Reporting inconsistencies – Usually, these platforms and tools have their own analytics and reporting features. Inconsistencies make it difficult to create accurate reports and dashboards.
  • Manual data preparation – Because of inconsistencies and data silos, BI users must extract data and compile relevant data sources themselves, adding additional time to produce reports and tell a coherent data story.

Why BI reporting is essential for enterprises

Modern BI reporting is vital. It gives companies of all sizes the big-picture view of business, and the ability to use data to drive decisions. BI reporting can help data experts—and with the right tools—business experts provide relevant insights into individual business areas as well as reports for broader business interests. Common BI reporting use cases include providing insights into:

  • KPI trends – Track progress of predetermined performance indicators. Everyone can stay up to date on KPIs as well as how they’re trending by automating KPI reports.
  • Resource efficiency – Receive updates on time tracking and performance levels to inform planning.
  • Departmental performance – Business leaders can evaluate whether current processes are working and see where adjustments make sense.
  • Competitive analysis – Keep track of the competition. Stay apprised of market trends and quickly uncover opportunities.
  • Revenue predictions – Quickly pivot business to adjust to revenue forecasts.

Where BI dashboards come in

With the right analytics tool, you can create dashboards that are easy to understand. A dashboard is a data visualization tool that tracks, analyzes, and displays KPIs, metrics, and critical data points. Dashboards empower anyone to understand and leverage business intelligence to make more informed decisions. Users actively participate in the analytics process by compiling data and visualizing trends or occurrences, and uncovering an objective view of performance metrics that can be immediately understood.

Dashboards feature visualized data via charts, tables, and gauges. Viewers use these visualizations to monitor the health of the organization against established goals and industry benchmarks.

Learn more

Got more questions about dashboards? Read our free online Guide to Data Visualization.


Domain experts can design dashboards with customized and predetermined reports. It should be easy for business users of all kinds to access and interact within the BI solution to take a deeper dive into information.

Domain experts can also embed BI dashboards into existing platforms like company portals or SaaS applications. The benefits are:

Have more questions?

Learn how to build the perfect BI dashboard here.

Embedded dashboards provide context because you can see the data within the applications where you need to make decisions or take action.

They ensure business leaders have essential information at hand for quick decision making without getting overwhelmed by irrelevant data.

Embedded dashboards improve efficiency because they sit within your existing workflow. So you don’t have to switch back and forth between tools to find information.

What’s the difference between analytics and BI reporting?

People often use the two words interchangeably. But analytics and reporting are two very different things. BI reporting is the tracking of data to extract insights while business analytics is the process of studying your data to find the answers that will drive business decisions. Essentially, it’s the difference between studying what has happened versus what can be done now and in the future to improve business outcomes.

  • Curiosity drives reporting. When you set up a dashboard, you’re basing it on questions that interest you and your team.
  • The quest for improvement drives analytics. Analysis is what helps you find the answers to those important questions — and then use them to make decisions and take actions based on the answers.

Analytics and BI reporting work hand in hand, but the results can only be as good as the BI applications and reporting tools you use. For the best—most accurate and revealing—results, these tools should be thorough, integrable, and intuitive.

Choosing the right BI reporting tool

Data teams are familiar with creating reports and building visualizations, so they know how data sausage is made. However many business leaders are focused on the end result — the dashboards and reports. Whether they request these from the data team or they use a self-service BI platform, they may be limited in what they see because they haven’t the tapped full potential of their organization’s data. Even if you’ve already decided you need BI solutions that provide flexibility for data teams and ease of use for business experts, there’s still more to consider when evaluating tools.

  • As more data moves to the cloud, understand whether the solution allows you to take full advantage of the flexibility, power, and data volume offered by your cloud data warehouse?
  • Can business users deep dive into data from any source?
  • Does it integrate with your cloud data warehouse?
  • Is it robust enough to allow creation of interactive, shareable dashboards with charts, maps, and more?
  •  Can business teams use it as a self-service solution (meaning it doesn’t always require code or data team management)?
  • Is it easy to complete ad hoc analyses—even for those without knowledge of SQL?

It’s important to note that traditionally, business leaders had to rely mostly on static reporting because they didn’t have a convenient way to request additional information on discrepancies, follow-up questions, and the like. In order to get those answers, they’d have to get in a queue to submit their follow-up request to the data team. But the rise of data-driven initiatives have left data teams drowning in ad hoc queues, meaning these requests often take too long to process. In addition, your data team may not even have all the experts they need to keep up. Many employers report a shortage of workers with sufficient data science skills.

Choosing a self-service BI reporting tool that eliminates—or at least minimizes—involvement of the data team for ad-hoc reporting will save time and frustration, and allow domain experts to promptly make crucial decisions.

Need Help?

If you’re buying a new BI tool and feeling stuck, check out our evaluation guide to learn what counts.

A tool like Sigma with all these features can serve as your single source of truth. Centrally managed data allows for more comprehensive and accurate analysis. And with the ability to connect to your cloud data warehouse with one-click integration, you can save hours or days of time that would otherwise be spent trying to connect tools. You want to connect your BI reporting tool to your warehouse so you can access all of your tables within it. You can then preview data, create worksheets, and make your visualizations. And you’re not limited to a table—you can join other data sources.

Want more from BI reports?

Read our 5 BI reporting best practices for building a data-driven culture at your company.

Make BI reporting a priority

In a lot of ways, domain experts and their teams are like competitive athletes. A small change can make a big difference in performance, but you have to know what changes to make based on accurate information that you can understand and act on.

Business teams can still call on data experts as needed, but they need the tools to be more in control of researching, managing, and visualizing data that satisfies the answers to their questions. With the ability to create and interact with their own reports, business leaders can dive as deep as they want to gain better understanding of business data, leading to better decisions.

Ready to visualize your data for actionable insights?