Data visualizations tend to get a lot of attention in the BI space, and why wouldn’t they? Charts promise instant insight and dazzle us with their flashy animations and appealing color palettes. Dashboards often serve as the culmination of BI product demonstrations.
And yet, “time and again, we find customers coming to us because of our operational reporting capabilities,” says Exago CEO Mike Brody. “They want dashboards too, of course, but what they really care about is having more control over their tabular reports.”
If you know a little bit about the history of business intelligence software, this makes perfect sense. At its foundation, BI exists to replace SQL and other database querying languages so that experts in facilities management or education or veterinary medicine can draw insights from their data without calling IT. You only have to skim a list of SQL commands to know the language is designed to manipulate data, not visualize it. And so while BI adopters do eventually want to see their data summarized in dashboard form, their first priority is getting the right data in the right format processed the right way.
This is where boring old operational reporting comes in. It’s a crucial first step on the road to beautiful visualizations, but tabular reporting tools are so complex and feature-rich that it can be hard to compare them.
So, to get to the bottom of what we talk about when we talk about robust operational (a.k.a. “tabular”) reporting, we’re going to challenge your reporting tool—whether it’s another BI solution or a spreadsheet application—to a duel.
Below is a list of common challenges our operational reporting suite is designed to solve. Can yours solve them too?
Can it…order a report by fiscal quarter, even if you have no fiscal quarter data?
We’re all familiar with the concept of ordering or sorting a report alphanumerically A-to-Z or vice versa, right? All you need is a column of data to put in ascending or descending order.
But what if you want to sort on a column of data that doesn’t exist? Let’s say you have an employee roster you want to order by fiscal quarter, but you have no “Quarter” column, no data explicitly stating which quarter each employee was hired in. You could of course find that information from the employee Hire Date column on your roster, but who’s going to go in and manually enter all that data?
Exago BI solves this problem by allowing users to sort on a formula. Applying the Quarter() function to the Hire Date field and sorting on the result allows you to put all of the October-December hires before others, disregarding what year they joined. But speaking of functions…
Can it…give you access to functions that no one’s even invented yet?
This sounds like a joke but totally isn’t. How can any BI vendor be expected to know what functions you’ll need down the line? Maybe you’ll discover that you’d really like to be able to find the value-added tax given a country code, or maybe you’ll find you need to know the day of the week for a given set of dates. We don’t know! And it’s okay that you don’t either. That’s why we’ve given Exago BI admins the power to create custom functions (and custom filter functions) from scratch. This means you can transform your data exactly the way you need to without waiting around for Exago to put out a new release.
And in the spirit of not waiting around for new features…
Can it…support functionality no one’s thought of yet?
Let’s widen the net a little more, shall we?
Suppose you’re an international company with offices in different time zones. When your users run reports, do you want all dates and times to remain static, reflecting the time zone of origin, or would you prefer them to convert to the user’s time zone? Alternatively, would you like to leave this choice up to the analyst?
Data transformations of this scope would be tiresome to implement as a functions—just think of all those formulas! Exago BI makes it possible to weave large scale changes into the report processing itself using server and action events. Admins can pick from a menu of moments (for example, when a user double-clicks a report or when a report is executed) and instruct the application to perform a task of their design in that moment. It might be to localize all date fields in a report or show report SQL as a user message or something else entirely! At the end of the day, you also get to decide whether reporting tasks should be global or applied on a report-by-report basis.
Can it…display multiple charts in one report?
Charts are for summarizing data, so it’s common to have one at the end of a report. But what if you’ve got a more complicated report with lots of sections that need summarizing?
Picture a sales report broken up into territories, which are broken up into branches, which are broken down into sales representatives, whose sales are broken down by quarter. There are a lot of opportunities for summarization there! (Seriously, it’s like BI Inception sometimes.) So instead of limiting reports to one chart apiece, Exago BI lets users build as many charts as there are groups. This way, every section gets its visual summary.
Can it…teach you how to build formulas while you build them?
Formula logic can be tricky to decipher, so we built an IntelliSense®-inspired formula editor that gives you usage help in real time.
Take the If() function, for example. It forms the foundation for more complex formulas and is therefore important for more advanced users to understand. The formula editor helps bridge the knowledge gap in four ways:
1. Formula elements are color-coded for ease-of-comprehension. In this illustration, functions are blue, fields are purple, and numeric values are red.
2. Syntax errors are flagged as you type. In this case, the user hasn’t finished entering a value.
3. Probable values are listed in order of most- to least-relevant as you type. The formula editor predicts what you’re typing so that you can easily select a predicted option to complete your value.
4. Functions and their arguments are explained contextually. With the second argument of the IF function selected, the tooltip explains both the If() function and the purpose of the second argument, which in this case is called the consequent.
Can it…transform a column before a user ever even sees it?
We believe application administrators know their users best and should therefore have the ability to transform data fields globally on their users’ behalf. Maybe that means merging the Employee Last Name and Employee First Name fields into one. Exago BI’s custom column feature makes it possible to create a new column from existing columns, saving users the trouble of having to create the same formula manipulations over and over again.
Need a Full Name field? Coming right up.
Can it…play nice with Excel?
Okay, this challenge doesn’t quite work if your sole reporting tool is Excel, but assuming it isn’t, wouldn’t it be nice to, for example, have an export that doesn’t flatten groups? Say you organize your sales report by employee. Instead of flattening it to this when you export to Excel…
We keep it nice and organized, just the way you made it.
Oh, and does your report contain Excel formulas? No problem. Exago BI’s ExcelFormula() will ensure that they work the way they’re supposed to upon export.
This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list of our operational reporting features, but it gives you a sense of what our customers are talking about when they gush about our tabular reports.
So how did we do compared to your tabular reporting tool? Let us know in the comments.