Snake Oil

Organizations often discover that after spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours selecting, implementing and utilizing a new reporting tool, their reports are no more reliable than when they started. Frustrated, they begin wondering whether they’ve been sold “snake oil.”

Trustworthy and reliable reporting requires much more than making the right technology investment. Expecting a new technology to improve reporting accuracy is akin to watching your favorite athlete on television buying the same model shoes, and expecting to perform just like them.

The athlete’s on-field performance is the fruit (result) of years of training, discipline, evaluation and constant improvement. The shoe, albeit important, is but a very small part of what makes them successful. The same is true when it comes to reporting.

Reliable reporting is the result of a disciplined approach that utilizes process, training, and validation (measurement) to drive continuous improvement. Report reliability can be defined as trust in the consistent (over time) accuracy of report data. Data accuracy, which can include data content, format, and timeliness, is a measure of whether the data aligns with expectations and whether it is suitable for the intended purpose.

Before addressing data accuracy an organization must first define data purpose. Data purpose ultimately defines what is measured and impacts data format, data content, data transmission, and data collection. Defining data purpose forces an organization to address reporting needs for multiple user types. The purpose (use) often varies depending upon the intended user. A chief financial officer needs different data than a line manager. This step, when successfully completed, results in definitions of data content (by user type), data frequency (live versus periodic updates), and data format (granularity, type, and how it may roll up).

The next, and sometimes most arduous step, is defining how data is sourced or collected. This requires an organization to identify the systems used for data entry, which personnel perform data entry, when the data will be entered, how the data will be transmitted and stored, and how data integrity is validated. Organizations that are intentional about this analysis will soon recognize the inextricable connection between technology usage and business process.

Business process is the preferred vehicle to communicate “how” a business should operate and technology utilization is no exception. If an organization has well defined business processes but utilizes the technology vendor’s standardized documentation to train their employees, they will most likely fail to achieve the desired results. Having reliable and accurate reporting requires each team member interfacing with the data to understand the value and impact of their input. Integrating technology usage into business process not only drives consistency but empowers employees to envision their contribution toward organizational success.

Additionally, data integrity must be measured. The axiom of “what you measure is what you get” is very true when it comes to data integrity. If an organization limits their measurement to a report identifying data that is corrupt (non-compliant) or missing, then their results will be “all you get is what you measure.” Data validation (the process of confirming compliance and integrity) should be integrated with business process, employee evaluations, training and compensation. The ultimate objective is for the team member to understand and embrace why the data is so important. When the team understands and internalizes the importance of data integrity, then the process drives continuous improvement.

Organizations that spend the time to undertake these basic steps will experience much higher report reliability than those who “just bought the shoes.”