Why do you need the report?

Have you ever wondered what the purpose of a report was, whether it was a status report that you had to complete, or a report generated by an application? You may have wondered if there was any real need for the report, and whether anyone would miss it if no-one bothered to produce it.

I have come across countless examples of reports that seemed pointless. What was worse, their existence shaped the job we had to do. The reports did not help people to do the job. They dictated how we worked; production, checking and filing of the reports for future inspection were a fundamental part of the job. In any review of the project, or of our our performance, they were key evidence.

My concern, and cynicism, were sharpened by an experience as an auditor when I saw at first hand how a set of reports were defined for a large insurance company. To misquote Otto von Bismarck’s comment on the creation of laws; reports are like sausages, it is best not to see them being made.

The company was developing a new access controls system, to allow managers to assign access rights and privileges to staff who were using the various underwriting, claims and accounts applications. As an auditor I was a stakeholder, helping to shape the requirements and advising on the controls that might be needed and on possible weaknesses that should be avoided.

One day I was approached by the project manager and a user from the department that defined the working practices at the hundred or so branch offices around the UK and Republic of Ireland. “What control reports should the access control system provide?” was their question.

I said that was not my decision. The reports could not be treated as a bolt on addition to the system. They should not be specified by auditors. The application should provide managers with the information they needed to do their jobs, and if it wasn’t feasible to do that in real time, then reports should be run off to help them. It all depended on what managers needed, and that depended on their responsibilities for managing access. The others were unconvinced by my answer.

A few weeks later the request for me to specify a suite of reports was repeated. Again I declined. This time the matter was escalated. The manager of the branch operations department sat in on the meeting. He made it clear that a suite of reports must be defined and coded by the end of the month, ready for the application to go live.

He was incredulous that I, as an auditor, would not specify the reports. His reasoning was that when auditors visited branches they would presumably check to see whether the reports had been signed and filed. I explained that it was the job of his department to define the jobs and responsibilities of the branch managers, and to decide what reports these managers would need in order to fulfill their responsibilities and do their job.

The manager said that was easy; it was the responsibility of the branch managers to look at the reports, take action if necessary, then sign the reports and file them. That was absurd. I tried to explain that this was all back to front. At the risk of stating the obvious, I pointed out that reports were required only if there was a need for them. That need had to be identified so that the right reports could be produced.

I was dismissed as a troublesome timewaster. The project manager was ordered to produce a suite of reports, “whatever you think would be useful”. The resulting reports were simply clones of the reports that came out from an older access control system, designed for a different technical and office environment, with quite different working practices.

The branch managers were then ordered to check them and file them. The branch operations manager had taken decisive action. The deadline was met. Everyone was happy, except of course the poor branch managers who had to wade through useless reports, and the auditors of course. We were dismayed at the inefficiency and sheer pointlessness of producing reports without any thought about what their purpose was.

That highlighted one of the weaknesses of auditors. People invariably listened to us if we pointed out that something important wasn’t being done. When we said that something pointless was being done there was usually reluctance to stop it.

Anything that people have got used to doing, even if it is wasteful, ineffective and inefficient, acquires its own justification over time. The corporate mindset can be “this is what we do, this is how we do it”. The purpose of the corporate bureaucracy becomes the smooth running of the bureaucracy. Checking reports was a part of a branch manager’s job. It required a mental leap to shift to a position where you have to think whether reports are required, and what useful reporting might comprise. It’s so much easier to snap, “just give us something useful” and move on. That’s decisive management. That’s what’s rewarded. Thinking? Sadly, that can be regard as a self-indulgent, waste of time.

However, few things are more genuinely wasteful of the valuable time of well paid employees than reporting that has no intrinsic value. Reporting that forces us to adapt our work to fit the preconceptions of the report designer gobbles up huge amounts of time and stop us doing work that could be genuinely valuable. The preconceptions that underpin many reports and metrics may once have been justified, and have fitted in with contemporary working practices. However, these preconceptions need to be constantly challenged and re-assessed. Reports and metrics do shape the way we work, and the way we are assessed. So we need to keep asking, “just why do you need the report?”

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