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Reports, Metrics and Data: Are You Producing Value or ‘Overhead?’

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Most people who work in modern offices are familiar with the 1999 film Office Space. In one memorable scene, the protagonist receives multiples requests for “TPS reports” from different people. While the content of the report is never defined, the film implies this report has little value and is perceived as ineffective bureaucracy.

Are you producing meaningless reports, or helpful reports that people use to make better decisions? It’s a challenging question that deserves to be answered.

In the course of running a large organization or project, many types of reports are produced. For example, publicly traded companies are required to publish quarterly and annual financial statements. What about all the reports your organization produces for internal use? When was the last time they were reviewed for value? What report could you eliminate? What reports can you improve?

Let’s consider how to improve your productivity by reviewing your reports, metrics and data. Going through this process will reveal opportunities for productivity gain (e.g. by eliminating low value reports). In addition, you will enhance professional relationships by proactively communicating whether others in your organization actually use reports.

Reports: Who Is Reading Them?

  • Reports with a Known Audience (e.g. Financial Reports)
    Complexity kills the usefulness of financial reporting. For example, your PMO may report earned value management, and that measure may confuse your stakeholders. When you have a known audience, ask them what they like most about the report (and what parts they use to make decisions). That feedback will help you to improve.
  • Reports with No Known Audience
    Think of the reports that you post to your organization’s SharePoint, intranet or public website. How often are they downloaded? How often do you receive questions or communication of any kind regarding the report?

To improve your productivity, consider eliminating one of the reports. Before you eliminate the report, determine how much time it takes for you to produce (e.g. 5 hours per month). You can translate that time into a cost by using your hourly rate. For instance, an annual salary of $70,000 yields an hourly rate of $35/hour assuming a 2000 hour work year.

Metrics: Are They Aligned To Your Goals?

Statistics and numbers are useful in managing IT and projects. Like any powerful tool, they are open to misunderstanding and outright abuse. Despite the 1954 publication of How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, many professionals continue to use metrics and statistics in an uncritical fashion.

Before you present another set of metrics to management, consider the following points:

  • Proxy
    Many metrics are indirect measures such as measuring customer satisfaction through surveys? When was the last time you reconsidered the validity of your proxies? Do you know if you can find a better proxy or a direct measure?
  • Data Quality
    You know the classic programming expression: garbage in, garbage out. In order to assess your data quality, I suggest taking three data points from a past reporting period and verifying the details, such as cost, location, and time.
  • Data Effort
    How much effort, money and other resources are required to collect the data? The most important point to consider is how much manual intervention is required to collect and clean the data. In these cases, information is far from free.

At this point, you can proceed in two ways. You can look at eliminating a metric if it is costly and not providing useful insight. Remember to consult with your stakeholders before you eliminate data. Or you can move ahead in the knowledge that the metric is providing significant value.

You may also realize that your organization has no way of measuring important activities. In that case, consider developing new metrics that will enable you to determine if you are meeting your goals. Metrics should always connect to your organization’s goals.

Data: What Are You Counting?

Data is the raw material that everything else is built on. When I think of data, a uniform database or spreadsheet comes to mind. For example, your customer data may include phone numbers. In order for you to complete any kind of useful analysis on that phone number data, it needs to be formatted and presented in a uniform fashion.

  • Internal Data
    The widespread use of IT means that your organization is constantly producing data. One of the most important decisions you can make is deciding what data is worth analyzing. Don’t make the mistake of only working with data that comes to you in a clean and highly structured format.
  • External Data
    Did you know that statistical agencies such as Statistics Canada, Data.gov (US data) and the UK’s Office for National Statistics have extensive data available? These organizations include plenty of interesting statistics on business, economic matters, education and more. External data can be particularly valuable if you are seeking to compare your organization to competitors or take trends into account.
  • Stories Vs. Data
    Stories and data are both valuable. If you are seeking to persuade people to take action, data alone is unlikely to make the difference. That’s why so many marketing and sales books focus on the importance of stories in persuasion. Don’t believe me? Think about the last five purchases (or charitable donations) you personally made: what role did stories play versus data?

The data you choose to collect will determine the types of reports and metrics you can produce. Choose wisely!

One of the most important consumers of your data and reports are executives. If you want them to care about your data and take action, you need to learn how to build a relationship with executives. Get the new ProjectManagementHacks.com report to learn how to build an effective relationship with executives and project sponsors.

 

For more brilliant insights, check out Bruce’s website: Project Management Hacks

About Bruce Harpham

Profile photo of Bruce Harpham
Bruce Harpham, PMP, is the editor of ProjectManagementHacks.com, a resource for growing IT project managers. Bruce's experience includes leading projects in the financial services industry and in higher education. Bruce received his Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto, Master of Arts (History) from the University of Western Ontario and Master of Information Studies degree from the University of Toronto. Outside of his professional pursuits, Bruce's interests include history, world travel, wine and science fiction. Bruce lives in Toronto, Canada. You can view Project Management Hacks at the button below.

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