Summary: What do you look for in a reporting tool? Obviously, the requirements vary by company, but I believe that certain elements are essential in a good reporting tool. In this article, we explore 6 essential elements you should look for in any good reporting solution.
Have you ever purchased business software, only to realize later that it didn’t quite meet your needs? Maybe you overlooked a requirement. Maybe you assumed certain capabilities were standard…but they weren’t.
If you’re looking around at web-based reporting tools, I want to help you avoid that mistake.
The first (and most important) piece of advice is this: Never assume. Don’t just assume that every tool is equal, or has similar features. Some tools may look impressive, but completely leave out some “basic” features. Other tools might get all the press but lack important features.
The big question: What makes for good reporting software? What should you look for?
For the most part, the answer to those questions lies in your company’s needs. But, I do believe that all “enterprise-class” reporting solutions must have certain essential elements. Today, we’re going to explore these elements in more detail.
Now, before we get into it, I want to add a couple of caveats:
First, I won’t get into the general must-have’s of enterprise software. Open architecture, broad database support, external security, etc… are all good examples. These topics are important but apply to any software purchase. I want to keep it reporting specific.
Second, I won’t get into vague features. Every reporting vendor makes vague claims of simplicity, ease-of-use, robust functionality, etc….
Rather, I like to focus on specific features that you can ask the vendor about. In this article, we’ll explore 6 must-have elements to look for in enterprise reporting software. Sound good? Let’s dive in.
1. Look for these 5 user-based security features
Data security is a huge topic right now, and with good reason. Data breaches can cause irreparable harm to a business.
What’s one of the leading causes of data breaches? Employees who have access to far more data and capabilities than they should.
The general rule of thumb: Give employees access to only the data they need. Make sure that your reporting software includes essential user-based security features.
“Make sure that access to data in the reports is granted on a need-to-know basis only – this will reduce potential risks associated with unauthorized access to report summaries,” says Ilia Sotnikov, Vice President of Product Management at Netwrix.
Which specific security features should you look for? Here are the most important areas to examine:
Row-level (or multi-tenant) security
Not every user should access the same data. Multi-tenant security lets you control data access within a single application at the row level. This means that many users access the same application, but view different data.
Does every employee in your organization need access to every application? Probably not. That’s where application-level security comes into play. It lets you control reporting application access on a per-user role, or per-user basis.
Single Sign-on (SSO)
SSO is a session/user authentication process. It lets users login in one place and authenticates the user for all authorized applications. The benefit: It eliminates login prompts when switching between applications in a single session.
User-specific data sources
This security feature applies to the database level. It lets you build a single application that accesses different data sources depending on the user. It provides flexibility, as it lets developers control database access on a user level.
User privilege parameters
This lets you personalize features and security to individual users. Saved to a user’s profile, user privilege parameters control user-specific features throughout every report.
2. Look for these 6 reporting types
“Regarding reporting tools, it is important to look at what stock reports are built into the system and what can be done from an ad hoc perspective,” says Ian McClarty, President & CEO of PhoenixNAP Global IT Services. “Reporting engines that are based on BI (business intelligence) typically go all ad hoc whereas reporting tools that are built for a specific CRM or ERP already have built-in reporting that meets the majority of the business needs. Either easy customization without a strong developer or pre-built reporting is the desired outcome, you get one or the other, rarely both.”
From a capabilities standpoint, look at two areas: Customization and baked-in reporting options. Let’s explore each one:
Customization is pretty straightforward. Can you customize the generated reports to fit your business? Can you create new reporting types or reporting templates? Some tools make this easy, while others need extensive consulting work.
Baked-in reporting types
What types of reports should you look for in a tool? While this will vary depending on your needs, here’s a short list of reporting types that every tool should include.
- Ad-hoc reporting
Ad-hoc reporting is essential because it lets end users create and distribute reports on the fly. The user selects the data elements he/she wishes to see in the report. Then, they can either export the report into a format of their choosing or email it from their web browser.
- Ranking report
A ranking report lets you rank the top/bottom aspects of your business. For instance, suppose you wanted to see your top 10 products over the last year. Or, suppose you wanted to see which regions performed the worst over the last 5 years. The ranking report makes both tasks simple.
- Web pivot tables
Pivot tables are powerful interactive reports that let users view data from many perspectives. They let users rearrange fields and see their data from any angle they desire. Pivot tables are great for analyzing data, making comparisons, and discovering trends.
- Interactive reports
Interactive reports display as much or as little data as the user desires, and lets users perform data analysis in different ways. It starts out with a high level view of business data and lets users filter, sort, and drill down to the most minute details. Interactive reports are so useful because they let users view their data in any way they wish.
A business dashboard displays high-level graphs and reports in one easy-to-use interface. It lets executives see critical data and can alert a company to problems before they get out of hand.
- Cross-tab reports
Cross-tab reports are great for summarizing and comparing data. They cross-reference row data with user-selected column data in a simple matrix format.
3. Look for multi-function reporting
When most people think of reporting, they only associate it with analytical reporting. In reality, that’s just one type of reporting. Some tools specialize in analytical reporting, while others offer multi-function reporting. Let’s quickly explore the different types of reporting functions to examine in any tool.
The most common type of reporting, this provides a historical view of your data. Analytical reporting lets you explore data from a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly perspective.
This type of reporting provides details about current activities. It’s intended to support the day-to-day activities of the organization. While real-time data isn’t that important with analytical reporting, it’s essential with operational reporting.
“While real-time refresh rates can be encumbering, it’s still important to have near real-time database refreshes,” says Ata Khan, Co-Founder of Xoobo. “The bare minimum for many businesses is every hour (depending on what you’re looking to do).”
Self-service tools give end-users the ability to create their own reports. This takes the reporting burden off of the IT department and gives users instant access to their data. If you plan deploy self-service reporting, involve end users in the purchase process. Make sure they’re comfortable with the interface and the report creation process.
“Consider the ease of use,” says Peter Purcell, Co-founder and Managing Director at Trenegy, Inc. “An enterprise reporting tool should be intuitive and easy to use. Business users should be able to write their own reports. Drag-and-drop functionality allows users to make reports easily. Overall, easy-to-use tools are more effective due to quick adoption and understanding.”
Optional Function: Embedded reporting
Embedded reporting is a powerful function but doesn’t apply to every company. While I can’t list it as a “must-have”, it is important enough to define and explain.
What is it? Embedded analytics tools let you embed reports and dashboards within existing software. Embedded reporting is typically used in a couple of ways:
- Software Vendors use embedded reporting tools to add reports, analytics, and dashboards to their existing software product. This helps them improve their offering and differentiate their software from the competition. They use an embedded reporting tool because it’s easier and faster than building the capabilities themselves.
- Other businesses use embedded reporting for a couple of reasons. First, some use it to replace inferior reporting features found in the software they use. For example, if their ERP system’s reporting features didn’t meet their needs, embedded reporting software helps them create custom reports and embed them in their ERP system.
Second, some use it to bring analytics to their user’s daily routines. They embed reports in software and applications their employees already use. This improves user adoption, as users can access important data without leaving their current workflow.
4. Look for low-code capabilities
In the past, BI & reporting tools produced analytical applications. They delivered data in an easily consumable format but relied on the users to take the next steps.
As Forrester mentions in this article, modern business intelligence tools are turning this approach around. They’re including low-code development features that let users take their data even further. For instance, a reporting tool with low-code capabilities will provide features like:
In the past, BI & reporting software were “read-only.” They pulled data from the database, but couldn’t write data to the database.
As businesses become more “data-driven”, we’re seeing this change. Modern BI reporting tools should include read and write capabilities. This gives users the ability to send alerts, perform actions based on data, and trigger workflows.
Automated alerts and notifications
With traditional BI reporting tools, you need to physically look at the reports or dashboards to gain any insights. Modern tools should be proactive, and let users set up alerts and notifications for critical data changes.
“Everyone needs to know what data to focus on,” says Derek Wilson, President and CEO of CDO Advisors, LLC. “Currently, we can all see data and have more and more access. The trick is to know what is important. Executives I work with are always wanting an easy way to be alerted about changes in critical data or KPIs.”
Report distribution is almost as important as creation. How do users access the generated reports? The best approach: Reporting portals.
Reporting tools with low-code capabilities will let you create secure reporting portals. A reporting portal is a centralized location where users can access reports and dashboards. The key feature is user or role-based security. Each user can only see the reports they’re authorized to access in the portal.
Modern reporting software should let you create and trigger workflows based on changes in data. This might include actions like approval workflows, sending emails, running reports, etc…
5. Look for these dashboarding capabilities
“I see a dashboard feature as a high priority feature for reporting systems,” says Karen Donoghue, Principal Interaction Architect at HumanLogic. “A strong dashboard feature allows enterprise users to build and execute queries on reporting metrics that are important to their organizations. A good dashboard experience aggregates these metrics in a single “glanceable” view that can help surface trends and provides links that serve as shortcuts to deeper analysis.”
I completely agree–dashboarding is essential to any modern reporting tool. That said, you can’t treat it like a checkbox item. Not all dashboard capabilities are equal.
In other words, it’s not enough to look for dashboarding. Look at the dashboard capabilities provided by the reporting software.
What should you look for? I won’t get into every point, as it’s a topic I covered in this article, but here’s a quick list:
- Drill-downs: Users start with a high-level view of data and can click on various elements to get more information.
- Cross-platform: A modern dashboard should adapt to any device or screen size.
- Customization: Each user should be able to customize the data and look/feel in their dashboard.
- Saved views: Users should be able to save dashboard customizations for quick access later.
- Organization options: The dashboard should have the option to separate different categories into tabs.
- Intelligent alerts: This feature alerts you when data rises or falls beyond a certain threshold.
- Row-level security: Each dashboard user can only see the data they’re authorized to access.
6. Look for open APIs
In the past, enterprise software architecture took a monolithic approach. Every feature was built into the software. The problem was, this approach was inefficient. For instance, if you had different applications sharing common functions, each function was built into each application separately. They couldn’t share code with other applications.
These days, software architecture has moved from a monolithic to a microservices approach. Microservices are like software “building blocks”. They provide a single capability which can be shared across applications. They connect and share data with other applications via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).
How does this apply to reporting software? Some reporting tools offer open APIs while others have closed APIs. An open API is accessible for anyone to access. It can connect with almost any data source or pass data easily between applications. On the flip side, a closed API is controlled by the vendor. It won’t connect to every data source and could limit your integration capabilities.
Let me ask you a question: What happens if you choose a reporting tool that doesn’t communicate easily with other software? You’ll have trouble getting data in and out of the reporting software. You’ll get stuck pulling data out of various systems manually and importing it into your reporting tool. It will turn into a constant frustration.
This is why you cannot afford to ignore APIs when choosing a reporting tool. As explained below, poor integration can ruin your reporting efforts.
“Look for a solution with open APIs,” says Purcell. “Users should be able to connect to and extract data from any data source. Many companies will want to connect the tool to their ERPs as well as other systems. Without the capability for connection, the tool is essentially useless.”
I’m sure this list could be longer, but I believe the elements listed above are absolutely essential to any enterprise reporting tool. Would you add anything to this list? Feel free to share in the comments.