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Reporting Strategies

Which Type of Report Offers More Business Insight? Dashboards? Or Normal Excel Reports?

The purpose of any report is to give its readers the most insight with the least reading time. Which type of report best achieves this purpose?

by Charley Kyd, MBA
Microsoft Excel MVP, 2005-2014
The Father of Spreadsheet Dashboard Reports

Can you find the critical insight about July's data in the figure below?

This figure is from an actual Excel report to the CEO of a company with annual revenues of about a billion dollars. To protect confidentiality, I've scaled all numbers by the same random constant and changed the titles and dates. So all that remains from the original report are the patterns of performance.

A crucial fact about the North Region's performance is right there in front of you...buried in all those numbers. Can you find it?

This is from an actual Excel report to the CEO of a company with sales of about $1 billion.

In the figure above, a reader must study the numbers to find meaning in them. But even after studying for a long time -- which few readers would do anyway -- it's easy to miss the key insight about recent performance.

The dashboard report below also uses only Excel charts and formatting, and it shows the same data as the figure above. But the data is displayed in one of my Kyd War Room templates.

A quick glance at the charts in this dashboard reveals the critical insight: July's performance was essentially flat in all cities. This information is critical because it hints at fundamental problems with sales throughout the region, or even the entire company. (As it turns out, the month shown was a turning point that began a significant downturn in sales throughout the company.)

Which version of the data provides the most insight with the least reading time? Which version would most of your managers prefer to receive? The one that readers must study? Or the one that offers immediate insight?

This dashboard uses the Report 2 template from Kyd War Room, and the WSJ color scheme from Kyd Colors. The arrows show where sales were essentially static for the current period. This is much easier to see in the charts than in the table above.

The advantage of Excel dashboard reports is not that they're pretty. To illustrate, the figure below is a pretty version of the first table. But even with pretty formatting, the key insight isn't any easier to find. Making poorly designed reports pretty doesn't make them useful. 

Here's a pretty version of the table above, which I also created in Excel. The dashboard report
still offers a superior view of the data, and it can use any version of Excel.

If you and your co-workers are tired of studying reports, and then missing key patterns of performance, you should display your performance using many small charts in an Excel report.

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