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Many businesses use BI reporting systems wrong, but they can improve

Many businesses commit similar mistakes when creating BI reports. Consultant Mico Yuk offers tips to help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

By now, just about every company has some kind of BI reporting system in place.

And just about every company is doing reporting wrong.

"We're making a lot of pretty garbage," BI consultant Mico Yuk said in a presentation at Dresner Advisory Services LLC's Real Business Intelligence conference, held in Cambridge, Mass., in July 2017.

Yuk, CEO at consulting group BI Brainz, said most companies have problems in their BI reports that diminish their value. The BI world has spent the last few years focusing on making reports visually compelling and easy to create, but there's a lot more to a good report than how it looks, she cautioned.

Yuk said she has consulted for many companies, including LinkedIn, that all make the same mistakes. These errors diminish the effectiveness of BI reporting systems, but with some minor tweaks, they can be overcome. She offered these tips on how to do so:

1. Limit the number of metrics you track. Yuk said she often sees the companies she works with tracking 20 or more key performance indicators (KPIs) in their reports. A much better number, she said, would be five or fewer. Anything over 10 just becomes a distraction because the human brain simply can't make sense of any more individual pieces of information at one time, according to Yuk.

2. KPIs need to have an actionable name. Too many companies give the metrics they track in BI reports names like "sales" or "revenue." The problem with this, Yuk said, is that such names lack a clear action. Nobody can look at a metric tracking sales and know what they're supposed to do. Instead, KPIs should be named such that they recommend an action like "sales needed to meet target." Yuk said, "If you rename your KPIs properly, it will remove a lot of the ambiguity behind them."

3. Focus on what matters. Yuk said many people get stressed about how their reports look. They have numerous meetings to talk about the visual appeal of a report and set guidelines on what kind of graphical chart types will be available to users. But she said reports rarely fail to affect the business because they use the wrong color scheme. She recommended spending more time making sure you're tracking metrics that truly have business impact, rather than fussing with design features.

4. Use your words. We've all heard the advice "show, don't tell." With BI reporting systems, this has come to mean crafting visualizations that limit the verbiage and present a picture of some metric. But Yuk said doing so creates opportunities for individuals to interpret the data themselves, and the more people bring their own interpretations to a number, the more subjective it becomes. She recommended verbal explanations of visualizations to cut down on interpretations. "There is a myth that data visualizations should not have text next to them," she said. "You have to have context in visuals; otherwise, you open everything up to interpretation."

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