Reports for the Sake of Reporting

Nowadays, there’s so much effort and innovation around creating highly visual reports and pumping out data, often without any insights. This week alone, I saw multiple LinkedIn articles on learning Python to mine data and create amazing visualizations. None of these articles mentioned mining insights for actionable activities.

My other pet peeve is reports for the sake of reporting. So much so that I’d say, probably for the past ten years, I’ve been anti-report and only will do them when there is something meaningful and actionable to report.

I recently met with a prospect, and they were concerned that there was no reporting with Hreflang Builder. I asked them what reports they expected to see. They wanted performance reporting to show how well hreflang was doing, what was the ROI of using the application and the number of pages with hreflang.

I explained that their existing analytics and ranking tools should indicate how well hreflang worked. The same goes for the ROI, assuming an increase in correct market visits and minimizing cart abandonment, which again comes from their analytics.

I told them we have reporting that directly relates to what we do with the application. How many pages were mapped and what pages were mapped and increases and decreases each update. Turns out they wanted charts not just numbers. They also wanted an easy import of these graphs into their other reporting. They needed to show that the software was “doing something for them” to justify its cost.

They wanted a chart and any changes month over month, like what URLs came in and what URLs went out. We have a change report of the number of URLs and URLs mapped. They wanted a report to tell them how many errors we found in their XML sitemaps and the number of pages without alternates and a master list of unmapped pages. All of these can be exported. There is just no dashboard or graphs. Additionally, they wanted us to build a dashboard of any errors we find when we validate the pages for errors so they could stop licensing other SEO tools.

A few of these are interesting reports and we could build them but we have our hand full trying to develop ways to match pages to each other and do it at scale. That is far more important than creating pretty charts and graphs.

Like many things recently, I have been trying to figure out why I resist certain topics. I believe one reason goes back to when I was a kid, working for my father. There were reports on service call trip reports but they were often tossed into a cabinet and never used for anything. I asked my father why, and he said that operations guys used to look at the data to try to make things more efficient. However, the next guy didn’t believe in it but never told us to stop doing them.

I assumed my father might use them but he told me he did not need a report to tell him where they had backlogs or problems because he was in it daily. Nobody up the food chain needed it, either. The point was to do something directional with the data, but people were recording things and not knowing what to do.

I encountered a similar reporting frustration with my first job out of the Marine Corps. There was a report that took just about a week to do and would result in a three-inch binder. My group would collect all of the reports from all the different departments, clean them up, organize the information, and create the big district report. During the first few months, I pulled out key insights, action items, and requests and added them to the front of the report. Once I knew what our performance metrics were I called them out and plotted how we were doing. I saw that our two key KPIs were declining. I tried to align them to various documented issues, ideas, and recommendations by the various teams. The next day, the binder was in her outbox to send to Corporate and file our copy. The next month I gave her the report and she said she trusted me and didn’t need to look at it. It was a great ego boost, but at the same time, I realized that if she wasn’t looking at it, and the regional director was not looking at it how would they be aware of the issues?

About 6 months later I was at corporate and brought our reports and asked who to give them to. I was told to remove the oldest, put it in the archive file box, and add the new one to the shelf. There was a sheet in front of the report with the rolls of all the people who were supposed to review and initial it. None had initials.

I questioned why we had to do the reports if nobody looked at them and if there were sections we could remove. A week later, the person I spoke to was gone, so I started doing interesting things with the report. I would put in a picture of a cat, something from Disney, or a section with music lyrics. Once, I even included a list of winners from the Academy Awards. I did these sorts of silly things, assuming that, at some point, someone would read the report and question the nonsense I added.

Months and months went by, and my boss got a call from I got a call from the latest of many senior directors. I noticed that somebody on your team was being funny with the reports.” Your reports have music lyrics or Disney characters. My boss called me into the call and asked “What’s the deal?” I just said, “In 18 months, you’re the first person that’s ever said anything about it, which means you’re the first person, other than those who spent a week building this report, to look at it.” She’s like, “Alright, come up next week. Let’s go through it, meet with some folks, see what we need, what we don’t need.”

What was interesting was that 90% of the headquarters people had no idea this report existed. Half of them thought there was one or two pieces of data in it that would be helpful; half of them said they already got that data from other sources. So, in the end, we didn’t need to spend a week collecting data.

Ten years later, at IBM, we would take 10-12 days to aggregate data. Depending on whether it is monthly or quarterly, I would produce a 30 to 100-page deck on all the great things we did: insights, traffic changes, high-performing phrases, and how we were tracking the various KPIs. My team got zero value from the reporting. What frustrated me, was doing this work for a report and maybe they would use two from the report and the actual report element was summed in one calculation on the executive dashboard. In the quarterly meetings, we would sit through many of these decks bored out of our minds, learning nothing other than we did a bunch of cool things and spent a lot of money. We always ran out of time when it came to my reporting. I used to ask, “Why do I need to do all of this? Who’s looking at this?” The answer was always, “We need it, management requires it” “We must demonstrate value, blah, blah, blah.” But nothing ever happens with it. We never make changes.

In our agency, we tried to streamline reporting to what mattered. Demonstrating what we completed tasks and demonstrated the business impact. We created a set of data mining analyses we called “30 Minutes to Search Greatness.” These were a series of data points that identified opportunities and anomalies sort of like warning lights in a car. Oil pressure’s low – okay, altert tells us we have to add oil. More importantly, it also triggered the question of why we are losing oil.

The idea was this set of data points would give us a number of actionable tasks to work on that week. All of these were measurable and would allow the positive outcome to help show we were actively working on the project and identifying actions that would further move the performance needs.

There are many managers who don’t question reporting and simply continue to do it because they always have, management wants it, or it makes people look busy. Maybe it is even part of the dreaded consulting by the pound. Either way, maybe it is time to you look at your reporting and decide if it is necessary and actionable.