Get critical business reporting faster to keep your company moving forward during COVID-19. We share seven ways to get started.
As society responds to the coronavirus (COVID-19), many business leaders now realize how little they know about their company operations. Priorities and processes must rapidly change to survive the shifting marketplace. If we are to weather this storm, we need critical business reporting.
We do not have the luxury of time during this crisis. Traditionally, we would rely on IT-driven reporting for business insights. However, trusted reporting requires investment in data governance, data warehousing and report development. All of these have a long implementation cycle and require considerable input from the business. Technical teams are also currently laser-focused on business continuity (for example: remote work, VPN and related issues), and are not focused on reporting.
But don’t let critical business reporting take a back seat. Here are seven changes that will allow business leaders to make informed decisions while working around the realities of the COVID-19 response.
1. Tactical Is Not a Dirty Word
During a crisis, give developers permission to take shortcuts and work with more efficient tools. Focus on making the minimum effort to get the essential information. Manual steps may be just what you need.
Tactical is not a dirty word. Don’t underestimate the value of quick wins.
Hands-on development work often requires a small amount of time compared to the overall business-as-usual development process (requirements docs, prioritization, UAT, code reviews, and more). Your development team might surprise you with what they can accomplish when given latitude. If it keeps your business running for the next 30 days, the benefits can easily outweigh the costs.
What does tactical mean when it comes to reporting? Here are a few ideas:
- Skip the data warehouse– build datasets from raw data.
- Move data manually instead of automated through ETL.
- Skip the database altogether– land extracted data in a file system.
- Try reporting tools that make development fast and sharing easy, such as Power BI or Tableau.
- Get the numbers mostly accurate. Executives will need to agree that you may require some iteration on numbers. On the other hand, “good enough” is sometimes good enough.
Set your development team free to explore new tools that get the job done. This step has multiple benefits: one, your technical people will be excited to get their hands on new technologies, and two, business leaders will have rapid insight into business performance.
2. Take a Dip in a Data Lake
Data lakes put all your raw operational data in one place, making analysis faster. Employ lightweight techniques for moving data rather than traditional ETL.
Don’t think “Hadoop” when you hear “data lake.” Nowadays, “data lake” refers to an environment where you co-locate all your raw data. There’s something almost magical about co-located data. Data lakes permit analysts to blend data from every system at once, creating a cross-department view. Creating a data lake can be as simple as restoring a backup copy of an operational database.
In times of crisis, real-time reporting is essential. Emergencies disrupt established business processes, and never-before-seen problems unexpectedly emerge.
You can achieve real-time reporting through transactional database replication into a data lake. Replication generally has zero impact on operational systems because it works from database logs rather than the database itself.
3. Get Your Head in the Cloud
Cloud offers innovative ways to store and work with data. Ultimately, cloud allows you to move faster and be more flexible with data and reporting. Moving your data up to the cloud has no ingestion cost.
Cloud is amazing, no matter if you prefer Microsoft Azure, AWS or Google Cloud Platform. Platform-as-a-service tools will dramatically accelerate work with data and reporting. We’re not talking about virtual machines here, but rather specialized products you can turn on and off as needed.
Cloud is the perfect environment for data lakes. Data ingestion incurs no cost and you can delete the data when you’re finished with it. Cloud tools allow you to drop data into file storage. You can even avoid the hassle of working through a relational database.
Cloud also offers modern technologies that can help you deliver faster. Azure Synapse Analytics (formerly Azure SQL Data Warehouse), Snowflake and other MPP platforms provide a single environment in which you can blend all sorts of data: relational data, semi-structured data (JSON, XML, and so on), non-structured data. All are blazingly fast, and you can provision these in minutes.
Another exciting technology is Databricks. Databricks lets analysts work with data using a blend of SQL, Python, and other languages. Now, developers can get in on the data action, not just your reporting team.
If your reporting tool runs in the cloud (such as, Power BI Professional), there are no egress data costs. All your data stays in the same cloud environment throughout its lifecycle.
4. Unleash the Business Hounds
Your businesspeople know what they want and can often move faster than IT. They may impress you by their ability to work with data in Excel and modern visualization tools. Take advantage of this resource.
IT has historically been a guardian of data and reporting. But “shadow IT” thrives in every organization, living on clandestine access to databases and operational report downloads. This data finds its way into Excel and has given rise to the term “spreadmarts.”
The very existence of shadow IT means some businesspeople not only can work with data but desire it enough that they are prepared to circumvent IT. The reason, of course, is that having good insight is extremely important. Furthermore, these business analysts understand the application of data analysis far better than anyone in IT.
Why not give those savvy business analysts access to the data they crave? Demand for insight goes up during a crisis and IT availability goes down. We recommend recruiting business analysts to participate in reporting.
They will certainly want to use Excel. At the same time, we are seeing many businesspeople migrate toward visualization tools like Power BI and Tableau. These tools make it simple to ingest data, produce beautiful visualizations and create rapid insight.
Historically, the greatest objection to wide exposure of data has been that business analysts will arrive at wrong conclusion– and then blame IT. Shadow IT and spreadmarts are direct evidence that people are misplacing their concerns. Yes, they may sometimes need guidance, but isn’t it exciting for the business to desire advice from IT?
Once the crisis passes, you will have instilled throughout the organization a stronger desire for data and reporting. There also will be a heightened appreciation for data governance, data quality, and the IT development process.
It’s a win-win for the CIO.
5. Judiciously Cut Red Tape
Strict business-as-usual procedures can stymy an organization’s ability to respond quickly. Develop a process to quickly assess the risk of providing access and expedite when benefits outweigh risks.
As we interact with clients during the crisis, the greatest inhibitor of rapid response is red tape in IT. Classically, red tape involves filling out forms and waiting for approval queues, especially as it relates to data access. Red tape serves an important purpose during normal business operations: ensuring proper procedures, security and documentation.
How does your organization evaluate the risk and benefit of red tape?
When you require a rapid response for business survival, it warrants extreme measures.
We can see how CIOs have done an excellent job with their teams, creating a culture of maximum security and strict protocols. This blanket vigilance eliminates many legitimate risks. At the same time, it can be counterproductive to rapid response.
The key is to assess the genuine level of risk due to granting access and then expedite access when it conveys a benefit to the business.
IT has traditionally been the guardian of access to networks, data, and applications. They may need to hasten or shortcut procedures to ensure long-term business continuity.
6. Dial into Your Collaboration Channel
Collaboration platforms feature integration with visualization tools. This is a powerful way to keep important information front-and-center, for example: operational scorecards.
Collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams often provide hooks to integrate dashboards easily. How many times have you resisted going into a reporting portal just because it’s outside your stream of consciousness?
By hooking dashboards to a widely used communication channel, the information is always in front of your stakeholders, keeping them aware of hot spots.
It’s worth a moment to consider the design of effective scorecards.
- Avoid burnout associated with seeing negative or red numbers all the time. A consistently negative message leads people to ignore the source.
- Focus on metrics that matter most. Extraneous information dilutes the importance of critical KPIs. Limit reports only to those truly required to get you through the crisis.
- Focus on driving behavior. Avoid the temptation to paint the dashboard with goal-based KPIs. Include information that tells people, “What should I focus on next?” For example, rather than indicate inventory levels are low, create a list of top vendors that supply chain managers should contact.
- Emphasize success along the way. As your company works to respond to the crisis, include indicators of past success. Building on prior example, show which SKU stock levels have improved in the past two weeks.
Lastly, provide links to other dashboards that allow for deeper analysis. You probably should not push every dashboard through the collaboration tool, just the most critical information.
7. Lean on Your Friends
Professional services companies (such as consulting firms) are motivated to help. They can deliver the extra capacity you need and may accommodate better pricing.
Just as you are going through tribulations, so is the rest of the world. We’re all in this together.
Professional services firms are often the first expense businesses cut. They have employees just like you, and those employees have families. For those reasons, these firms may accommodate special arrangements, including more generous terms, reduced pricing, and access to more experienced talent.
Consider how professional services firms can create a win-win experience with you. They can help you knock down your queue of tickets, quickly implement cloud, build and deploy rapid reporting solutions, and more. In our experience, data visualization skillsets are plentiful among consulting firms and can help to deliver critical business reporting.
You may also take advantage of the crisis to get ahead of the market. If you have available capital, you may be able to accelerate the development of products and other market differentiators. This may not seem like a priority now, but it could make a big difference once the economy rebounds. As the saying goes, “luck happens when opportunity and preparedness meet.”
At the same time, introducing outsiders can present challenges to an organization. Be sure to broadcast a clear expectation of cooperation when you use professional services in new, possibly sensitive areas of your business. A rapid response will thrive when people trust each other and can work together happily.
Crisis management always seems to require more insight than normal– the questions tend to be complex, report consumers tend to be higher up in the organization, and frequency tends to be real-time.
When it comes to policies, carefully balance risk, expediency, necessity and morale. Allow people to work in ways that are outside the norm. Explore modern technologies not being used today and encourage innovation.
Your organization may come through the crisis happier, more empowered and energized to embrace the new world.
Together we will get through this.
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