Business Intelligence Blog from arcplan

Ad-Hoc Reporting Isn’t for Everyone


Consider your users before thinking ad-hoc will be your silver bullet.

Ad-hoc reports allow users to manipulate and explore their data and build reports on the fly to answer business questions. If dashboards and static reports answer the question "What is happening at my business?" then ad-hoc answers the question "Why is it happening?" However, ad-hoc is not for everyone. There is a common misconception, often propagated by BI vendors like us, that once users have access to their data, they'll be able to self-serve and IT will be relieved of the "go fetch" requests for reports. Let's debunk that myth.

The spectrum of workers in your organization includes people with various responsibilities and skill sets who are equipped with tools specific to their job function in order to get work done.  In her 2011 report on Self-Service BI, analyst Cindi Howson illustrates the different segments of BI users and their relation to business query tools.

As you can see, ad-hoc or business query tools only serve a small subset of users: IT developers, analysts & information workers (power users), and some executives & managers. IT developers are building ad-hoc reports for the frequent requests of other user groups. Data analysis experts/power users use ad-hoc query tools most often to support decision-makers who make operational, strategic or tactical decisions. Then you have executives and managers who ideally want interactive dashboards with an ad-hoc component so they can quickly answer questions without needing complex BI tools.

Self-service BI hinges on user-driven analysis. It provides an avenue for users to navigate and visualize data, and get the answers they need to make important business decisions with limited or no help from the IT department.  Ad-hoc reporting tools offer self-service; they require users to do the reporting themselves. But there are some things to consider before leaving your new ad-hoc tool in the hands of business users.  In the aforementioned report, Howson also outlines user requirements for creating your own queries. They include:

  • Understanding data nuances (for example, the difference between gross sales vs. net of returns)
  • Knowing database concepts (so you can predict which elements are ideal for filtering)
  • Having a grasp of query language concepts such as SQL or MDX

These requirements are important for creating reports that are logical and for producing results that make sense. You'll also notice that this skill set matches up to IT managers, analysts and power users who support decision makers - not business users who are looking for patterns, problem areas or performance metrics in order to make critical operational decisions. Business users, managers and executives most often consume information, so the expectation that they will have the skills (or desire) to create BI reports from scratch is not realistic. If the tool is too complex to use, then each of your managers and executives will revert to the antiquated spreadsheets they're most comfortable with, which have too many drawbacks to go into here.

Next time, I'll present the kind of ad-hoc experience you should think about for the majority of your business users.

arcplan Spotlight is our newest ad-hoc analysis solution (included with arcplan 7.1+ installations) that empowers users to build dynamic reports using drag-and-drop and familiar controls, and connects to more than 20 data sources.

Dwight deVera

About Dwight deVera

I'm Senior VP responsible for Solutions Delivery at arcplan in North America. I also present on a lot of arcplan webinars, so you can sign up to hear me - the events listing on our website is located here: You can also follow me on Twitter: @dwightdevera.
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