Project Management

Have Traditional Reports Passed Their Use-by Date?

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by Lynda Bourne

Projects mean reports! Many project teams are required to produce weekly and monthly reports for their client as part of a contract, or because of an internal set of reporting requirements. This process comes with challenges:

  1. The information is out of date—project reports largely focus on what has happened.
  2. Most reporting regimes use a one-size-fits-all structure. This is better than freeform reporting, but it means while all of the information may be needed by someone, there’s a lot of redundant information for almost everyone else.
  3. They are time-consuming and expensive to produce.
  4. The information is groomed and edited to suit the narrative the report writer would like to tell. You don’t need to be dishonest to change the impression a report creates; you simply need to understand how language works. 
  5. The people who really need the information are usually too busy to read it.

That raises a big question: Do we need traditional reports? Developments in business intelligence, artificial intelligence and system integrations offer a far more useful solution—putting real-time information in front of the people who really need to know now.

Most of the information on virtually every project (even traditional construction projects) is recorded in various software tools. With a little bit of organization, the data can be brought into a business intelligence (BI) system in real time. The result: a dashboard showing what’s occurring in real time, usually with a drill-down capability to see what has changed and why.

The problem with BI is usually too much information and added noise created by different elements within the tool being updated, edited and corrected at different times. This generates false differences for short periods of time. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in to play two useful roles:

  1. Within the BI system to filter out the noise: For example, if Bill’s timesheet has been entered but his work for the day has not been updated, wait until the end of Bill’s shift before flagging low productivity—his work update may be entered in the next 5 minutes. (Real time is good, but needs managing/synchronizing.) 
  2. Outside of the system to learn what’s important to whom: No one can spend all day looking at the dashboard. AI can be trained to send targeted alerts when something relevant to a manager changes enough to warrant their attention. An email or an SMS is sent with a link embedded to the relevant part of the dashboard.


Do reports still have a role? My answer is yes, but it’s a different role. Reports are needed to explain something or to show the results of an investigation or inquiry. For example, a team (or individual) may be tasked to report on the preferred subcontractor to engage for a particular role on a project. The report provides leadership with the information and options needed to make a decision. In fact, this would be a far better use of the time currently spent by PMO and project staff preparing and distributing weekly and monthly reports.

I want to hear your thoughts: Do traditional reports still have a place among project teams?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: September 17, 2020 05:18 AM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Hi Lynda,
This is such an insightful article. BI and AI as part of new technology is altering the way reports will be generated and reported especially in real time as you rightly stated. BUT the traditional reporting framework is still vital to some great extent.

Traditional reports (what do you define as traditional reports?), or the traditional reporting process (i.e. track down data, put it into a spreadsheet or data source, and create reports off of one or more data sources)?

Your examples imply 1) knowledge of what to automate and how to automate it, 2) the systems and infrastructure needed to provide automation, and 3) the time and budget needed to set it up. Without these, the traditional reporting process remains valid. While it is true that there is a growing number of tools to help with automation that aren't priced completely out of reach, not all companies consider making the change a value-added activity.

Understanding where opportunities lie is a challenge a lot of companies/people face. A small company with a small budget is not going to pursue a PPM solution or a tier 1 ERP solution just to get reporting driven by AI. They may not know where to look for cheaper alternatives.

As a PM, I would love to have reports and forecasts automated, so that I didn't have to spend time on them. That would be valuable for me. Given the current technology I am working with, and what it would take to set up automation, it's not worth it to my company. For now, traditional report continues to make sense, in the sense that it is the best option available to me.

Thanks for the feedback. I'm not sure what industry Aaron is in but most industries, from BIM in construction/engineering to Workflow and 'teams' in IT are automating information processing anyway. Organizations that do this well will thrive, those that don't because it is hard, needs new knowledge, etc., will simply fail over time. As soon as you start automating information processing, opportunities to make 80% or more of a typical 'monthly report' available to managers who need to know in real time open up. Organizations that still prefer spending $5,000 to $20,000 per month crafting a report explaining what happened between 2 and 6 weeks ago will be increasingly disadvantaged. The one thing BI and AI cannot do is interpret the information and make smart decisions - this still needs people.

Hi Lynda,

Thanks for sharing thought provoking discussion as really weekly / monthly reporting sometime become too tedious and monotonous that PM sometimes appear as reporting manager; if not really balance the PM skills and guide the project team to the ultimate project success which is the very purpose of any endeavor.

Surely we must sit back, take pause and understand the real value of the reporting and must tailor to suit the business need !

By the way, above is from the experience of mechanical and production industry and it may vary from industry to industry.

I fully agree with the five points that hamper project management decision making. Of these the most important one is the ability to provide the right information to the right person at the right time. Establishing a common data environment with automatic progress reporting is the first right step which will solve the delay and accuracy issue of information, which is mandatory for application of AI.

Traditional reports definitely still have a role. I consider a report a snapshot in time and good project documentation. I am in the construction industry and one project I am on requires Daily Status Reports. We are a subcontractor so this report if it contains the right information, can serve so many purposes. Find a deficiency onsite? Document it in the daily report and my customer can use that as leverage with the owner for change orders.

I love the idea of automating; however, the entire team needs to be open to it or it won't work. As long as I have Excel at my fingertips, I can create whatever tool I need to at least make my job as efficient as possible.

Well a lot depends on the Organizational setup Information systems capabilities etc., traditional reports need to be revamped for sure.
What we need is a perfect balanced mix of traditional reports for operation efficiency, Dashboards for Mid & Top Management.

However, if Dashboard needs to effective, we need to smartly fine tune the data by removing the additional noise from the default fields & setups from the BI tool.


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