“Implementing business intelligence and automated reporting is the ultimate low-hanging fruit to transform your business.” - Bryan Maltais, Business Intelligence Consultant

Companies know that automating their reports and dashboards delivers more impactful, real-time insights. Yet many struggle to make the jump. Why is this? It’s difficult to overcome the brain’s natural resistance to change. A recent Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study confirms the obvious, that humans favor the old-known versus the new-unknown (Eidelman et al, 2010). In the world of data intelligence, manual Excel reports fit squarely in the category of old, known, and comfortable. It is hard to leave the familiar, particularly when the familiar works “well enough” and familiarity with more modern BI tools is limited.

4 Pitfalls of Excel Reporting

To overcome the resistance to change, leaders should first recognize the gravitational pull of the familiar, specifically looking at the root of their bias for manual reporting to see where “status quo” thinking is at play. Leaders should also consider the drawbacks of manual reporting which include:

  1. Increased Overhead: Manual reporting is a labor-intensive process, requiring analysts to manually retrieve data from sources and platforms, then compile, scrub, and organize that data into spreadsheets. Downstream, the time and mental effort needed to draw conclusions from columns and rows of data is inefficient.
  2. Disconnected Data: Manually combining data sources to produce reports is difficult and prone to errors. Connecting ERP data with labor and sales data to gain a more holistic, strategic view (e.g., labor as a percentage of operating or project costs, grouped by region) can prove to be more effort than it’s worth.
  3. Delayed Insight: A rear-view into performance limits a company to making reactive adjustments. Real-time (and automated forecasts) allow a company to mitigate risks and exploit opportunities more successfully.
  4. Reactive Leadership: Without real-time, granular data, leaders can't drill down to address the root of issues. They're limited to managing symptoms.

Benefits of Automated Dashboards

By contrast, automated reporting is efficient and cost effective, and connected data sources provide both the high-level overview and single-source of truth that isolated, manual reports often miss.

This podcast episode, The Downsides of Manual Reporting, explores the costs of continuing to manually generate reports. CEO Brick Thompson and Business Intelligence Consultant Bryan Maltais take a deeper dive into the discussion, prompting listeners to make the first step toward automation. They remind listeners that automation does not require a waterfall effort, but instead can start with quick wins. Read more about our proven agile over waterfall approach to BI initiatives.

Listen to the podcast here, or read the full transcript:

For further listening/reading:



Eidelman, Scott, Pattershall, Jennifer and Crandall, Christian. (2010, November). Longer is better. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2010.07.008

Full Transcript

Brick Thompson: 0:04

Welcome to The Dashboard Effect Podcast. I'm Brick Thompson and with me today is Brian Maltais one of Blue Margin's consultants. Hey, Brian.

Bryan Maltais: 0:11

Hey, Brick, thanks for having me.

Brick Thompson: 0:12

You bet. What are we going to be talking about today, Bryan?

Bryan Maltais: 0:15

So today I want to talk about manual reporting, and some of the some of the problems that that causes at your typical mid-market company, and some of the opportunities that they might be missing out on with automated reporting.

Brick Thompson: 0:29

Okay, yeah. And I think one of the biggest impacts of manual reporting, is that it causes reporting to be delayed. I mean, just by its nature, you have a business analyst that needs to go and usually pull some data, put it into Excel, often, then put it into a PowerPoint or something for distribution. So there are people waiting for the report, and there's real impact to not being able to have reporting at your fingertips.

Bryan Maltais: 0:57

Exactly. So, let me just kind of play the typical scenario and define what manual reporting is. Very often, I'll be approached by a CFO of a mid-market company, sometimes PE backed, sometimes private. And they come to me saying, "Look, I'm spending 20 hours of my month, at least, just on reporting. I don't have that kind of time. And I also know that my data can be put to work for me somehow, but I don't quite understand what that means." And typically, like you alluded to already, what they're doing is they have these great data sources in place, right? They've invested significant money in good ERPs, data sources, but they are still forced to go around at the end of the month, gather that data, import it into Excel to manipulate it. You can't do drill down because these visuals that you that you produce from Excel, they're not interactive, they're not real time. So to show every derivation of that data, you're forced to produce a new visual, put it in PowerPoint, and then present it.

Brick Thompson: 2:02

Yeah, that's right. When I think about the impact of that, if you only had to do that once a year, okay, so what, or even once a quarter. But as you know, as a person running our business, the impact of having a delay between when something happens, and when I can see reporting that tells me what happened can be huge. Now, sometimes it doesn't matter, you've got business running as normal, everything is going smoothly, okay. It's maybe not so important that you see what happened yesterday, or how we're doing month-to-date or week-to-date, something like that. But that can also kind of lull you into a false sense of security, and you may not realize that things are dropping off or that there are problem areas. And when you can get reporting automated, so that you've got a data warehouse or a data mart, and let's say some Power BI reports built off of that, you can now see how it's going up to the hour up to the day, and make decisions and take actions a lot more quickly.

Bryan Maltais: 3:07

Right, there's a huge opportunity cost to delayed reporting. So let's talk about that. Let's talk about a solid example. Let's say you're a manufacturing company. And you've got a solid ERP for production, like Epicor. You've got a financial database, a labor database, and a sales database. So previously, every month you were gathering data from each individual database, putting it into Excel, but you're not getting up-to-date metrics. So let's look at a scenario in which you've got automated reporting. So you, you take those four databases that I just mentioned, you connect them, you put them into Power BI report, and these are the types of metrics that you get. So the first reports, superficially shows you units sold. But then when you do a drill down, in other words, you you click on it, then it gets granular to items sold. Then you can click further and it goes to region that it was shipped to, individual customer factory that it was produced in, things like backlog of items that are not shipped, right down to the sales office, the salesperson, and even labor hours devoted to production. So the bottom line here is when you take those separate data sources, and you make them cross functional, you get these metrics in a single report that you couldn't possibly have gotten from Excel or you can get them from Excel, but it takes a lot of labor to produce that.

Brick Thompson: 4:41

Yeah, so it seems like one of the main values that you see for people is the ability to quickly and easily cross filter, drill-down that type of thing. And usually in manual reporting you just don't get that. You might get a fancy pivot table from a good analyst, and if you're good at running pivot tables, you could do some of that. But it's going to take some work as opposed to just sort of intuitive, right-clicks and drill-throughs, that type of thing.

Bryan Maltais: 5:11

Right, exactly. You don't get that deep or real time oversight over all details of operations. So what you get with manual reporting is you get retrospective management, instead of real-time management. With real-time management, you can make adjustments on the fly. You don't have to wait until the end of the month to see what went wrong, and then forecast in the next period, how can we adjust that? You can see before it's coming, what's about to go wrong. That is priceless. So a lot of times people are trying to decide, well what kind of investment should I make in this? And how do I even gauge the costs? Well, as we started off, the first cost, the easiest cost to derive is, what's the CFOs time were worth? What are those 20 hours of manual reporting worth? But then it gets so much deeper, because if previously, you were using this manual reporting to forecast the resources that you needed to get the job done, that's highly intuitive, and it's very likely that you over devoted in some areas and you under devoted in other areas. What's the cost of that? And the the answer is, how big of a company are you? How, how much is one hour of production worth? And how much are you saving?

Brick Thompson: 6:32

Right. So you've got that you've got the labor cost, obviously. That can be a huge consideration. But I think something you said just a minute ago really resonated with me is that, if you're getting a report a few weeks after something happened, it's too late to do anything about that. And if you could have known a few weeks ago -- you started to see a trend going the wrong way, you saw a KPI going yellow, and then maybe going red -- you could have taken action weeks before and actually changed the outcome of what you're seeing now. Whereas with the delayed reporting, it's already baked. Yes, you can now look at it and say, "Alright, how am I going to fix it going forward?" But I've had the experience of business of already having dug a hole, and not even realized that I had dug a hole until I got a delayed report, and then realized, "Uh oh." And now it's not a small fix. I've got to dig myself out of the hole.

Bryan Maltais: 7:24

Right, hit the nail on the head. There's another huge benefit to real-time automated reporting. And it's not about physical dollars that you can count or physical widgets. It's this dashboard effect. And that sounds like this pie in the sky thing, but it's not. What that means is dashboarding is a management tool, right? So when you deploy these dashboards, and they're made available to either key personas, or the entire company -- it's up to you, whatever works -- everybody can see what's going on, right down to the minute. And when they can see, oh, production in this department is down. Or if you're a sales guy, for example, and you say, "Oh, man, this office is kicking my butt." That motivates you to kick it up, to increase performance. And what did that do? It liberated management's time, right? They didn't have to come in and say, "Hey, guys, look, production is down here." The key people already knew it. And they already reacted. So it liberates management's time as well.

Brick Thompson: 8:33

That's right. If you give people have a scoreboard, and they know how it's going, as a manager you often don't have to do anything at all. The people will provide their own accountability through that scoreboard, through that dashboard. I start my day, every morning, 5:30, 6:00 am, I look at our reports that land in my inbox that are connected to Power BI reports that shows how it went yesterday, both for sales made and for production from our delivery team. And so well before I get to the office, say at 7:00 or 7:30, I know how it's going. And I know where I need to dig in. And thankfully, most days, there's nowhere to dig in. I can work on the various initiatives and projects that I want to. But if something's off, then I know I can go talk to the head of our PMO or head of sales and see if there's anything I can do to help problem solve and help get things right on the right track.

Bryan Maltais: 9:29

And I think if I were to summarize what does real time automated reporting mean, to me, what's the biggest benefit? See companies, they're always trying to dig into, how can I sell more product? Or how can I spend money to enhance my infrastructure, etc. Reporting is low hanging fruit, right? You don't necessarily have to do those things. You already have a resource at your disposal. That's free. It's there. And if you just dig into it, you and put it to work for you. So if you take what you already have, if you take this awesome data infrastructure that you already have through your ERPs, and your data sources, and you just interconnect those data sources, you cross reference them, it is amazing what you can churn out, that shows you insights that you didn't realize before. And you're like, "Aha, I can do this better without having to uproot my physical infrastructure. I can do this better without having to hire more people," or whatever it is that you were thinking before. Implementing business intelligence, automated reporting, it is the ultimate low-hanging fruit to transform your business. And I'll tell you, there are a lot of companies that before they implement data reporting, they are middle of the pack. And I've seen it. The companies that that institute reporting, they change to market leaders. It's that powerful, in my opinion,

Brick Thompson: 10:58

Yeah, it really can be revolutionary. I think it's an interesting point you make about the interconnectedness of the data sources. And when you're doing manual reporting, it's a lot harder to cross reference those. I mean, if you have a good business analyst who's really good at, VLOOKUPs, and so on in Excel -- I shudder to even to say the word VLOOKUP, you should be using Powerpivot at this point -- you can do some cross referencing between different data sources. So that you might, as in the example you gave, you might pull in something from your ERP, maybe around units sold, and then something from your HR system that tells you how much people are working, so you can figure out something about what it's costing us per sale, something like that. That's sort of a simple example. Doing that manually takes some work. And then when you add a third data source to that, say, a CRM to talk about prospects and pipeline and all that stuff, it starts to get really complicated. And you can, through an automated system, pull all of that data into a data warehouse, do that interconnection, have a data architect, build those interconnections for you once, and now they're automatically connected, and automatically updating every day. So as you get to more sophisticated analysis, the cost to produce that manually skyrockets,

Bryan Maltais: 12:25

Right. And if you have somebody do it for you, it's, it's a light lift. Sounds complex, but if you give somebody access to your data sources, let them make those ETL connections, raise a data warehouse, if that's the best method, and then output it to some really impactful reports. There's not much that you as the CFO, or part of the management team of that company have to worry about.

Brick Thompson: 12:52

So that's true, you can hire a partner to do that. You may have a development team in your own company that can do it. It's just a matter of getting the vision and the strategic initiative to do it. And I think you made a good point there, you know, you said, "build a data warehouse, if that's what's needed." It's true, you don't always need that. You may just need a simple reporting data model that you can even have residing inside of a single Power BI file. That would be kind of first-level, basic-level automated reporting. But sometimes, that's all you need to get bigger ROI and get on this path to getting where everybody knows the score, and you're actually seeing the benefits of using that data. As you said, the data is almost a free resource. I mean, we know it's not free, right? You've got to pay for your ERP system. And then to build some automated reporting is not free. But that data is just a side effect of running your business systems. It's just sitting there. It needs to be mined, basically.

Bryan Maltais: 13:51

Yeah, and the the, the beauty of that.... So you touched on a simple report for quick gains. You know, not everybody is a $100 million a year mid-market company. And not everybody already has three data sources. So if you've got one single, good data source, and theoretically, the data that you need is there, you can still connect right to that data source, Choose what your highest impact, highest value area of reporting is, and churn out a Power BI report in a fairly quick time. And you're far ahead of where you would have been if you were still relying on Excel.

Brick Thompson: 14:30

That's right. And I just think it's an important point to make, that people don't feel like okay, I need to go either manual, or I need to do a huge data warehouse and a big project to do a bunch of automated BI. You start getting benefit even with a little bit of automated bi. It doesn't have to be a huge project and then you can build on that. And in fact, that's the way we recommend doing it. Companies that approach this as a waterfall project, like okay, we're going to take our six data sources, we're going to build a data warehouse over the next six to twelve months (it always takes longer than you think) and then we're going to produce 18 reports and then we'll have BI. We think that's the wrong way to do it. Start with a data source or two data sources. Get to some reporting in a very short number of weeks, and do it in a very high impact area so you're realizing ROI, almost immediately. And then build on that. It's amazing. It starts to become obvious as people use automated reporting, they will start to come up with genius ideas for how to use your data and improve your business.

Bryan Maltais: 15:36


Brick Thompson: 15:37

All right. Any other things you wanted to cover on this topic?

Bryan Maltais: 15:41

I think I got everything off my chest that I came here to talk about. I appreciate it. (laughs)

Brick Thompson: 15:47

I'm glad we could do that for you. All right, Brian. It's been good sitting with you. Thanks.

Bryan Maltais: 15:51

You too Brick. Thank you.

Brick Thompson: 15:52

Talk to you soon.

Bryan Maltais: 15:53


Jon Thompson and Suzanne Rains

Written by Jon Thompson and Suzanne Rains

Jon Thompson is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Blue Margin Inc. An author and speaker, Jon sheds light on how businesses can take advantage of a revolution in business intelligence to become data-driven and accelerate their success. Suzanne Rains is a communications specialist at Blue Margin Inc. With a MA in Human Resources and BAs in Marketing and Management, Suzanne unites an understanding of human nature and a keen interest in industry research to author thought leadership articles for today’s business leaders.