Excel at reporting (No .xlsx required)


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Yesterday we shared some of the most interesting learnings of Caroline Day’s case study on the development of the IBM Center for Applied Insights’ ‘Business Tech Trends’ Report from the DAA New York Symposium on Monday. Today we would like to share some comments on another presentation we found both thought-provoking and divisive.

Dan Cross of Penton Media shared an engaging story on how he has come to refine his organizational reporting using Excel. As an Enterprise Reporting solution provider, there were some points we wholeheartedly agreed on, and we were extremely impressed to hear how he was able to influence company culture and get his colleagues to adopt the practice of regularly engaging with their reports to make data-based decisions. We admit, however, that we left with a couple of key questions unanswered on the true efficiency of using the Adobe Report Builder to push data into Excel for reporting.

Dan’s story outlined his tumultuous journey as he refined his reporting methods, limited the information provided to individuals, improved his visualizations, added textual elements and gradually got stakeholder buy in. Some of his conclusions on successful reporting really stood out to us:  

Present only the 3 or 4 things people really care about

Initially Penton’s reports contained large amounts of data and were not necessarily relevant for the individuals receiving them. As Dan came to polish these reports he made a dramatic change to their presentation. He began to only include the most pertinent data for each of his colleagues. In doing so he improved the level of comfort with the reports and user engagement.

We’ve spoken before on ignoring those pesky vanity metrics and focusing only on impactful, reflective, and customized organizational KPIs and KSIs. The most important thing to ensure when setting up your team’s reports, however, is that each individual gets access to both the type of information and level of detail they require to do their job well. While a Social Media Manager may require operational metrics by social channel on a daily basis, your CMO may only have the bandwidth to focus on one computed KSI named Social Media Channel Success which combines data on reach, engagement, social media lead generation and revenue to rate performance over time. This may be compared to multiple other ‘Channel Success’ metrics such as eCommerce, Campaign and Email.

Use reporting to promote proactivity

The evolution of Penton’s reporting processes allowed the team to move from reacting after ‘the event’ to making proactive changes. It also highlighted the highest value activities and enabled the organization to prioritize these.

We also believe in a proactive rather than reactive approach and have a number of functionalities aimed at aiding this:

  • Firstly, alerts can be managed to send direct notifications for poor (or strong!) performance. Carefully selecting your alerts can enable you to receive warnings before a large spike or fall and help you to avoid disaster.
  • Secondly, predictive modeling can forewarn you far in advance that your performance is not where you need it to be to reach your long-term term objectives.
  • Thirdly, collaboration can help teams to proactively set priorities and share expertise.
    An analyst, for example, may be able to isolate a pattern that has previously led to poor performance and alert a stakeholder with decision-making power to allow them to act prior to a damaging period of poor performance.
    Conversely, an executive with strong market knowledge may be able to work with an analyst to redirect their analysis to investigate the potential impact of external events and act in anticipation of these.
    Collaboration can also ensure that teams focus on the highest value opportunities by fostering this relationship between business stakeholders and analysts to allow teams to prioritize those areas that have the greatest potential to impact larger organizational goals.
  • Lastly, reporting structures can help teams promote proactivity by increasing transparency of both results and actions taken. Not only does this increased transparency encourage accountability by clarifying the strength or weakness of decisions made, but it also clearly shows where changes have either not been implemented or implemented too late. The opportunity to learn from both your own mistakes and those of others can also promote proactivity where teams feel confident to act early based on past learnings.

Set realistic goals

Dan spoke on the idea of setting realistic goals in order to maintain team motivation. He noted that if you set the bar too high, morale will drop as teams are continually unable to meet their objectives. He found it effective to define objectives based on benchmarks of last year’s performance.

While we agree that setting realistic goals can help motivate teams, we take a different approach to setting goals.

We look to define hierarchies of KPIs/KSIs based on how they feed into each other, or how the work of one team/individual contributes to the ability of others to meet their objectives. For example, improving Brand Awareness may be a key objective for Social Media teams, but why is this a goal for them? Because increasing Brand Health, Revenue and Customer Loyalty is a goal for the whole organization, and Social Brand Awareness is one of many contributing factors to each of these goals. Therefore, the Social team’s goals most likely feed into, to take one example, a computed Brand Health metric on the dashboard of the CMO.  This may be built by combining multiple metrics such as Social Media Brand Awareness, as well as Brand Perception and Purchase Intent data (among others).

Therefore, goals should always be set based on results required help your team achieve your wider organizational objectives, or the potential for your contribution to the larger goal.

Presentation matters

We’ve written extensively on this topic both throughout our blog and in our Red Book of Dashboard Design, and so couldn’t have agreed more on the strongest two conclusions of Penton Media’s testing of report design over time. They noted that visuals; their design, use and placement are highly important, but that the use of free text to explain the data should also be widely used.

The Path to Data-Driven Storytelling and Actionable Insights describes the origins of storytelling, and argues that the interpretation of results using verbal and written language, rather than dataviz or numerical elements, represents data-driven storytelling. This is because language alone has the ability to attach sufficient understanding and emotional reaction to provoke a response. It is also the most effective way to disseminate the knowledge of those in the best position to interpret results and share insights.

But we were left wondering…

While the above conclusions from this presentation are all extremely insightful, if you follow this blog you’ll know about our scepticism on the ability of Excel to provide an efficient, collaborative and user-friendly reporting experience.  

On leaving the presentation, some niggling questions remained, primarily:

  • How do Penton’s stakeholders collaborate around static Excel data?
  • How do they integrate data from sources apart from Adobe Analytics into Excel? And how do they combine data to create compound multi-source metrics that answer key organizational questions?
  • As an experienced analyst, would time not be better spent analysing insights and making changes that could bring value to the organization, rather than just reporting (when this could be entirely automated)?

Questions for another day perhaps, but we would love to hear your responses in the chat box below.


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Megan Wilcock

VP of Business Development for Sweetspot. Responsible for strategic brand development, marketing and business development. BA/BComm graduate from the University of Melbourne. My passion lies in finding creative solutions and encouraging collaboration.

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