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April 15, 2009

What Users Should Expect of a Good Ad-Hoc Reporting Tool

With an ad hoc reporting solution, users should be guided through an intuitive, wizard-based report builder to get the information they want. Once they build and run a report, they should be able to interactively drill down and further explore the data as needed.

Ad hoc reporting should provide a full-range of capabilities to end users, such as:

- Intuitive wizard-based interface for creating reports
- Ad-hoc dashboards that are easy to create, save and modify
- Summary, crosstab and pivot table reports
- A variety of charts and graphs, plus other rich data-visualization tools like ad-hoc heat maps
- Re-usable report templates
- Export to PDF, Word, and Excel
- Interactive drill-down, sorting and paging
- Data grouping
- Report parameters and filters for returning the most relevant results
- Basic and advanced statistical calculations
- Report management features for saving, archiving, editing and sharing reports

Business end users have come to expect all of these features in the managed reporting applications that are built for them by report developers. They also want these capabilities when they are building their own reports.

Empowered End Users
Business end users know what they want from a reporting system, but they don't always have the technical training to develop their own reports in a managed report environment. That's why it is critical for an ad hoc reporting tool to provide an intuitive wizard-based report builder that guides users through the steps for creating interactive reports.

The report wizard should make it easy to change, save and share reports. If users decide to change a calculation or want to look at a different dimension, they should be able to make adjustments and re-run the report immediately.

And, they should be able to use their own everyday, business terminology without having to know a query language or the technical intricacies of the data structures.

Convenient Access with Web-based Ad Hoc Reporting

Once the user has created reports, they should be available to run and view them in a standard Web browser for convenient access. Older legacy approaches to business intelligence involved heavy client-server software on the end users' computer or at least a browser plug-in.

With pure Web-based business intelligence, the end user has full access to all functionality with just a Web browser. There should be no need for users to download client software or plug-ins to build and view reports.

This model ensures that the user can reach their reports and perform analysis from any Web-accessible location approved by the IT department, inside or outside the corporate firewall. This model also means significantly less maintenance and support work for the IT department when dealing with version upgrades and other configuration changes.

Increased IT Productivity
Business users like ad hoc reporting because of the control it gives them and because of the time it saves. Ad hoc reporting does not just save time for the end user; it also saves time for the IT department and/or report developers. With Web-based ad hoc reporting, the IT department retains the control they need to optimize and manage users, roles and access to data. Now that end users can create their own reports in a controlled environment with a self-guided report wizard, the IT department and report developers are free to focus on other more complex aspects of the business intelligence environment like automating workflow or optimizing their databases.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

April 3, 2009

The Main Benefits of Ad Hoc Reporting

Ad hoc reporting is an important part of just about any business intelligence (BI) implementation. Yes, even managed reporting--at least that of the good kind--has ad-hoc-like features that enable end-users to answer an increasing number of business questions without relying on IT.

(For a more in-depth discussion about this topic, please see this LogiXML Ad-Hoc Reporting White Paper, available free for download.)

1 - Gets critical information to the right people at the right time. Self-service results plus automatic scheduling/delivery of information let you facilitate timely decision-making.

Users get the information they need when they need it to answer critical, realtime questions without relying on the IT department for every report and research project.

2 - Provides flexibility for constantly changing environments. Business needs evolve; answers to changing business questions become more critical. It's impossible to predict what questions and answers users may need in the future. Since business users can create their own reports, they can solve even short-term problems and answer one-time questions. It is often not practical for the IT department to build one-time reports for users because of limited resources.

3 - Saves training costs and time by streamlining access to critical information. An easy-to-use, self-guided wizard allows users to build their own reports quickly. Users do not have to know the details of the underlying data model and do not have to be trained in more complex report development techniques.

4 - Encourages collaboration and information sharing. When ad hoc reporting is implemented as a Web-based business intelligence solution, users can easily create, organize, publish and make reports available to other users via the Web for on-demand viewing.

5 - Reduces IT workload, saving valuable development costs and time. A Web-based ad hoc reporting application itself can be deployed quickly for widespread availability to end users. Upgrades are seamless since no client applications are installed. And, once deployed, users build reports themselves anytime they need the information; no waiting days or weeks for IT staff to add new report development to their schedules.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 11:45 AM | Comments (0)

March 5, 2009

Ad Hoc Heat Maps and Visualization Tools: What Makes Them Easy to Create

The better ad hoc reporting tools marry the benefits of an easy-to-use interface with those of advanced visualization tools like heat maps.

But here is the difficulty in this. Understanding how to create an ad-hoc data table can be intuitive enough, especially if the process is wizard-driven. But creating a heat map involves at least a basic understanding of the structure of the underlying data.

And here's one of the big differences between general ad-hoc reporting solutions and the better ones. General applications offer the features, but leave it up to the end-user to figure them out--often offering expensive training session that, given the difficulty of the solution, become de facto mandatory.

Conversely, the better ad hoc reporting software lays out a clear, essential path for the end-user, along with clickable links that offer clearly-worded help on the particular step on which the end-user is working.

Thanks to this structure, the user has always a clear vision of the report-creation path:

1 - Do the essentials, which will give you a basic report with the columns you need to see.

2 - Step out of the "absolute-basics" box if you want to add more features to your report--but still in a linear and easy way, and always guided by wizards and aided by help links.

One of the main benefits of this approach is that the user can add a lot of usefulness and persuasive power to his reports. One thing is to read data from a table--another is to see it displayed as valuable information on a heat map or other visualization tool.

Another is simply the ability to get more out of your ad hoc software--which in turn means making your end-users smarter and more productive while freeing IT to do what they need to do instead of creating and troubleshooting end-user reports.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 8:30 AM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2009

Understanding Data Security in Ad Hoc Reporting

The issue of who gets access to data and information is an important and often delicate matter, especially with ad hoc reporting. Unauthorized access to sensitive information by unwanted parties can lead to a variety of obvious problems. It is therefore essential to equip a reporting and analysis solution with a powerful security model. The best ad hoc reporting security models are built on two key concepts: user authentication and user authorization. In turn, user authorization employs roles, permissions and rights to control what data or records users can see.

What is data security?

Within a reporting and analysis environment, data security is the ability to control who can access specific types of data and information. In a typical organization, for instance, sales reps have access to sales numbers, but only the sales manager and human resources may view the reps' salary and bonus information. For it to be so, the system administrator must use or build a filter that enables him to grant and restrict access to different personnel depending on their role.

The two main requirements for an effective security model are flexibility and, of course, data security. The model must both conform to strict security parameters and afford the company enough flexibility to support the special needs of the organization using the system.

Let's take a close look at how the issue of security is handled by good ad hoc reporting solutions.

Robust ad-hoc reporting security models

The security models in the more robust ad hoc reporting applications can work in three main ways:

1 - By taking advantage of the user and role/group infrastructure built into the Microsoft Windows operating system, including NT, IIS, Active Directory, LDAP domain security
2 - By integrating with any preexisting, custom security structure a company may have, although users and roles also have to be created in the ad hoc reporting solution. This, however, can be done automatically via APIs, so that the administrator has to maintain only one database.
3 - By defining roles and users in the solution's metadata database

In any of these cases, the security model is built around two key concepts: user authentication and user authorization.

Authentication: Who is the User?

Authentication is the process of identifying--or authenticating--the digital identity of the user logging in. Authentication in good ad-hoc solutions relies on a data library. Each time a user attempts logging into the ad-hoc reporting solution, the latter makes a call to this library. Authentication can happen either through the operating system's security features or by building a custom authentication system.

Operating System Authentication. In this case, authentication takes place through services provided by the Microsoft Windows Internet Information Security (IIS) system Within the security model, this option is called Operating System Authentication.

Custom Authentication. Solutions should also allow the setup of a custom user authentication system, that is a system using its own login page and user/password list. It ensures that the current user is allowed to log in, and it passes the user name onto a Logi Info application. Custom authentication systems communicate with the application through authentication tickets. These are pieces of encrypted data communicated between the server and the client for the purpose of verifying the client's identity.

Authorization: What Can the User See?

Once a user has been authenticated, authorization determines the scope of what he is allowed to see or what actions he can perform. To control authorization, Logi Ad Hoc uses a combination of roles, permissions and rights.

Rights are pre-packaged into permissions; roles are sets of permissions. Users are then assigned one or more roles.

Rights. Rights are the general capabilities as to what a user or role may see. Technically, these are defined in the metadata database of the ad hoc reporting solution.

Permissions. Permissions are packages of rights, also defined in the metadata database. System administrators may use these or repackage rights as best fits the organization's needs.

Roles. Roles are sets of permissions which define the scope of the access to information.

The three security levels necessary in an ad hoc solution

There are three security levels in the better ad hoc reporting solutions:

1 - Record-level security determines what data may be seen, and is user/group based.
2 - Data-object or column-level security allows or disallows a role's access to certain tables or columns. Role-based.
3 - Folder-level security allows or disallows a role's access to certain folders of shared reports. This is also role-based.

Benefits of a robust ad hoc reporting security model

The main benefits of the data and user security model described are as follows:

a) Flexible and secure authorization and authentication. These applications offer the ability to tie into other systems like databases, NT Security, Active Directory and LDAP; tie to preexisting custom security structures; or define security in the Ad Hoc metadata database.

b) Granular level security, or the ability to permit or bar access to reports at the folder, object/column and record level. Based on authorization, report elements can be shown, hidden or disabled; and records can be securely filtered based on rights, permissions and roles.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 8:45 AM | Comments (3)

January 29, 2009

What Makes Ad Hoc Reporting Software Easy to Use?

Here's the big irony of ad hoc reporting software. It's designed by techies while being aimed at nontechnical users.

OK, you'll say, but that's the case with most end-user software, so what's the biggie? To which I'll reply, sure. That's why no end-user software has ever failed after teeing off thousands of frustraded users, right?

Right.

So, if you are a company looking to add ad hoc reporting to your BI arsenal, how do you know you are not about to equip your end-users with something that will frustrate rather than help?

The solution is: easy
To use, that is. But what does this mean in practical terms? After all, what's easy for me may not be easy for you and viceversa.

In the context of ad hoc reporting software, easy means two things:

1 - Possessing a solid set of basics. I'm talking about the famous 20% that solves 80% of practical problems. These basics need to be so simple to use that even a half-trained monkey would be able to navigate through them in a way that will make a difference in his job (the end-user's, not the monkey's).

2 - Possessing the more advanced stuff, but as a clear different step for the end user.

What do I mean? If you want to look at good end-user products, look at the better point and shoot digital cameras. They have a mode selector wheel with a little red heart that means "use this if you just want to take a snapshot, and don't you worry about anything else." So, with this camera in this setting, aunt Camelia or uncle Larry only have to worry about not keeping their finger in the way of the lens and voila'. That's all they need.

However, these cameras also have advanced settings. Say Camelia and Larry get fancy and want to start taking pictures that rival those captured with SLRs costing ten times as much, the features are there. This is where my point 2 comes into play.

The same goes with ad hoc reporting software. The better ad hoc solutions give the end-user the absolute basics of reporting and analysis in a simple, foolproof wizard-driven format, which enables the user to a) adopt the solution without being scared of it and b) start using it to solve his problems.

But these solutions also have the more "advanced" features, presented in a way that don't look like must-know-the-first-time necessities, but eventually-nice-to-have extras. This way, the more advanced user can use them right the first time, while the more computer-shy one can reserve them for later while creating and using his own reports without having to run, hat in hand, to your IT department every time.

Nice two-step. One step easy-now, two step fan-cy, one step easy-now, two step fan-cy... That's the rhythm of successful ad hoc reporting software.

In the end, remember this: failed adoption and too much reliance on IT is the major reason why BI projects fail. So, caveat emptor.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 2:45 PM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2009

Web-based Ad Hoc Dashboards

Ad hoc reporting is all about empowering end-users to become experts in their area of business through complete access to the data that matters. One of the most powerful tools in the ad hoc reporting arsenal are web-based ad hoc dashboards. Ad hoc dashboards are single web pages on which the end user can place the information that matters to him, giving him a single view of what's critical to the efficient running of his business.

For example, the end-user can place critical metrics in the form of charts and graphs, web pages monitoring, for example, the movements of a financial index, and, in short, any other information that is relevant to him.

On the surface, this tool may sound a bit intimidating to end-users new to creating their own reporting and analysis space through ad hoc reporting. But this does not have to be the case at all.

A powerful but user-friendly ad-hoc reporting solution will enable end-users to easily create their own ad-hoc dashboards in mere hours--with more experienced users doing so in even less time. Especially with the advent of web-based reporting, creating your own ad hoc dashboard is not that much different than creating your own My Space or My Yahoo page--which are in fact web-based ad hoc dashboards.

The benefits of ad hoc dashboards are too many to list, but here are a few:

- Freeing IT from creating dozens or hundreds of different dashboards for different needs
- Letting the end-user place the information that truly matters to him on the dashboard, and change it as he pleases
- Giving the end-user the power to monitor and act upon critical metrics
- Adoption: once end-users see how easy it is to set up and use their own dashboards, BI adoption will be a sure thing and your investment will bear fruit.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 7:45 AM | Comments (4)

January 18, 2009

Ad Hoc Metadata Database--The Smart Alternative to a Data Warehouse

Let's face it. A data warehouse, while ideal for optimizing data for reporting and analysis, is often a luxury, especially for small and midsize firms. A data warehouse is complex to put in place and is expensive in terms of both cash and IT resources. In the real world, most companies of this size query more or less directly their transactional databases--that is, their CRM, HRM and ERP databases. This does save time and money, but it creates also some problems.

In particular, how does querying your transactional databases impact the implementation of ad hoc reporting?

When implementing an ad hoc reporting software, most CIOs run into several concerns. These concerns have to do mostly with the fact that, from the time the ad hoc software is implemented, their company will have dozens and in some cases hundreds of end-users reporting directly from their transactional databases. This can create problems on many levels, including but not limited to:

- Security concerns
- Data-safety concerns
- Non-standardization of data
- Concerns about the load placed on the transactional databases at query time

Many companies--especially small to midsize companies operating on finite resources--have gotten around this problem by equipping themselves with an ad hoc reporting solution that comes with the possibility to create a metadata database.

What is a metadata database?
A metadata database is what its name suggests: a database about data. It is a "ghost" database in which data mirrors that found in the transactional databases. Creating this metadata database while implementing an ad hoc reporting solution is the realm of the system administrator.

What are the benefits of a metadata database vis a vis ad hoc reporting?
Let's remember that the goal of ad hoc reporting is to enable end users to have access to data when and as much as they want (of course, with the proper safety measures in place). And these safety measures are exactly the main benefit brought by a metadata database. Here is a brief list of them:

Taking away the querying load from the transactional databases. These databases' function is not to present data for reporting and analysis--it is input of data from the company's various transactions. Moreover, a heavy querying load can slow the system down to the point that these databases can't fulfill their main task in time, which could be potentially disastrous.

Instead, an ad hoc reporting solution with a metadata database will enable the end-users to run their queries apart from the transactional databases, while still enjoying real-time updates of their data as if it came from their company's CRM, HRM and ERP.

Keeping your data safe. Once the sandbox of your data is open to the whole playground of your company's end-users with ad hoc reporting, there can be some problems. A metadata database will ensure that your data will remain safe even when it's reported on and analyzed by a myriad of end-users. Simply put, with a metadata database your users cannot wreck your real data, because it is not with real data that they are playing with.

Standardizing your data. Oftentimes, column names in the transactional databases are a) not consistent and b) not intuitively named for end-users to immediately understand. A metadata database gives the system administrator the opportunity to remedy both situations, since he has complete control over the standardization of data for ad hoc reporting.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 10:30 AM | Comments (3)

January 14, 2009

Embedding ad hoc reporting: the benefits

If you are an OEM or a software vendor, you may evaluate the possibility of embedding ad hoc reporting capability into your application.

Here is a brief list of what will add value to your software once you embed ad hoc business intelligence:

Giving your clients maximum reporting flexibility - Ad hoc reporting lets your software empower nontechnical end-users to create their own queries without waiting for IT. This makes them more productive and, ultimately, may help your client become more competitive.

Adding visual power to your application - A good ad hoc reporting module should sport user-created dashboards, plus rich visualization features, making it striking and differentiating it from your competitors.

Saving you implementation effort - If you and your main competitor are both embedding business intelligence, the one going to market quicker has a better chance to winning more business. Therefore, an embedded ad hoc reporting module that is quick and easy to set up, that connects out of the box to your data sources and that is easily customized to your branding will give you a competitive advantage.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 12:30 PM | Comments (0)

January 9, 2009

How Ad Hoc Reporting Software Can Save the Day

In this time of recession, ad hoc reporting software can give a company the shot in the arm it needs to become more competitive in the short term.

What Is Ad Hoc Reporting?
In business intelligence, Ad hoc reporting (or adhoc reporting, as some spell it) is nothing but reporting and analysis capability given to the end-user. As opposed to its "managed" counterpart, ad hoc reporting does not call for a developer preparing the report. Each end user can prepare his own report "ad hoc" (Latin for "on a case-by-case basis", or "for that specific purpose") for the problems he has to solve.

Benefits of Ad Hoc Reporting
The main benefit of ad hoc reporting is that it frees the business end-user to report on and analyze data without waiting for IT to prepare queries for him. In these tough economic times, when most companies operate on a minimal crew and everyone's job is unique, this type of flexibility is even more precious.

But even in general, ad hoc reporting is all about empowering decision-makers to get to know their business better and act as entrepreneurs to solve their problems quickly and efficiently, without the bottleneck of report-development needing to be performed by another department.

Sales, account management, finance, operations, warehousing, planning, human resources--all functions within a company can benefit from ad hoc reporting.

Drawbacks of Ad Hoc Reporting
As we all know (or should), with freedom comes responsibility. And without responsibility, an excess of freedom can cause problems. In this case, managed reporting gives a company more control over how data is analyzed, since a professional report developer prepares the queries along (one would hope) standardized and agreed-upon guidelines.

Also, allowing the end-user to query the operational databases directly can cause some technical headaches. This is why the better ad-hoc reporting software includes a meta database that effectively insulates the company's data from the ad hoc reporting by end-users.

Practical Examples of How Ad Hoc Reporting Software Can Help
Let's say that you are a company with 100 salesmen operating in 100 different territories nationwide. Would you want each salesman to have full access to his own numbers, goals, clients' history--and even human resources file? If so, ad hoc reporting is the answer. With only a few user-based security measures in place (so that, for instance, Jones cannot see Smith's salary history and vice-versa), ad hoc reporting software can offer each salesman access to the critical numbers to make his job more efficient.

With the better ad hoc reporting solutions, salesmen in our example could also place the most critical information on an user-created dashboard and receive an automatic report every morning informing them of the latest numbers.

This type of ad-hoc reporting capability would allow them not only to see the information that matters to each of them while tuning out distracting "white noise;" also, it would enable them to analyze data "how" they like--for example, some more visually, some other in a more table or number-oriented way.

The bottom line: with ad hoc reporting, you turn your employees into decision makers and empower them to become experts in their business without depending on somebody else.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 12:15 PM | Comments (4)

January 7, 2009

Top-ten Musts of Ad Hoc Reporting

Ad hoc reporting is the ultimate democratic tool in BI, since it empowers employees to create and share their own reports. It is a little bit like the Internet (post Web-2.0), since it gives all users the freedom to interact with data without having to wait for a "superior" be this technically or hierarchically speaking.

Here are the top-ten things a good ad hoc reporting software should have.

Be web based. The usefulness of an ad hoc reporting solution is greatly watered down if it does not run on the web. Being able to access ad hoc reports from anywhere is one of the main benefits.

Be easy to use. Adoption, adoption, adoption is the BI equivalent of real estate's location, location, location. Bottom line: if an ad hoc reporting solution is hard to use, adoption will suffer.

Offer ad hoc dashboards. Ad hoc dashboards are the ultimate end-user reporting tool, since it enables nontechnical personnel to put the metrics that really matter into an easy-to-grasp format.

Offer powerful visualization tools. Seeing data in a table is one thing. Seeing it in a graph is quite another. But seeing it in ad hoc tools like heat maps and animated charts makes it truly come alive.

Be easily shared. The decision maker, and his or her findings, should not live in solitary confinement. What you find in your ad hoc reports (provided the reports are relevant) should be shared with colleagues and clients without cumbersome uploads or heavy email attachments.

Keep your data safe. Empowering end-users with ad hoc reporting shouldn't mean giving them direct access to data--as in, reporting directly to your CRM, for example. Good ad hoc reporting solutions have a metadata database that insulates real data from end-user reporting.

Keep your data secure. You don't want Bradley in sales to see what Horowitz in finance makes, right? User-based, role-based security--especially when easily set up--will enable you to deploy ad hoc reporting without worries.

Connect to your data easily. So, you've got your ad hoc reporting software, but now they tell you you need Salesforce.com or Oracle, or the newest database, or else your investment is for zip. Needless to say, an ad hoc solution that plugs into most data sources out of the box is preferable to one that does not.

Set it up quickly. Even a good ROI becomes not-so-good if it's delayed unnecessarily. When you decide to equip your employees with ad hoc reporting, go with a solution that is set up in days--they are out there.

Ability to connect to other BI solutions. You wouldn't buy a chair that does not go with the rest of your dining-room set, would you? Or buy a single Swarovski crystal glass unless you were planning to buy more of the same in the future. Same thing with business intelligence. You shouldn't get a solution that doesn't match the technology of what you already have--or one that won't be easily integrated with other future BI purchases. Look for versatile technology.

Posted by The Ad Hoc Reporting Boys at 10:00 AM | Comments (8)