One of the most frequently asked questions, when it comes to business information technology, is the one on how to generate good business reports from database applications. Most businesses nowadays use database applications in their day to day operations. The database applications are, for instance, used in operations management: to keep track of raw materials, finished products, work in progress… and so on. The database applications are also often used in human resource management: to keep track of employees, the hours worked by the employees, the benefits due to the employees, the employees’ appraisals, among other things. We also often see the database applications being used in financial management, to keep track of revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities and so on. Yet another area where database applications are often used is that of marketing – to keep track of new sales leads, customer enquiries, customer correspondence and so on. In a nutshell, database applications are used in all aspects of business management. Most of the well-known business IT systems are powered by databases.
Querying a database, to generate a report
When database applications are used in businesses, there are two core objectives. The first objective is to ensure that business information is stored in an organized manner. The other objective is to ensure that the business information can be accessed conveniently, whenever need arises. Let’s focus on the second objective – of accessing the business information that is stored in the database application. We see that whenever the need to access the business information that is stored in the database applications arises, the database applications usually have to be ‘queried’. Thus an appropriate ‘query’ is conceptualized, and then entered into the database. The database subsequently returns the information that was queried for. The results that come from the query constitute a ‘report’.
Therefore it becomes clear that, at the most basic level, to generate a report from a database, you just need to enter the appropriate ‘query’ into the database. The database will then return the queried information, which is what is subsequently referred to as a ‘report’.
Problems associated with basic database reports
The basic database reports that are returned by database applications following the entry of queries tend to have certain problems. The biggest of these problems is based on the fact that such basic/raw reports tend to be badly formatted. When you enter a query into a database, what the database is really likely to return is a set of rows and columns containing the relevant data.
As a result of the basic/raw reports being badly formatted, it follows that they are hard to make sense of. Such reports are hard to understand. It is not easy to make conclusions or inferences from such raw reports. That is yet another problem associated with the raw/basic reports. So we end up with a couple of problems: in that the basic database reports are badly formatted, and subsequently, they are hard to make sense of.
Those are huge problems, because the reports that are generated from database applications are supposed to be well-formatted and easy to make sense of. The reports are, more often than not, meant to be used by the business managers, to make the relevant management decisions. As such, the reports are supposed to be set out in such a manner that the relevant bits of information can be easily gleaned from them, at a glance. What we get, instead, are rows and columns containing the relevant data.
Improving the reports generated from database applications
We have already take note of the main problems associated with basic/raw database reports. Firstly, as we have seen, the reports tend to be badly formatted. Subsequently, they are hard to make sense of. It follows, then, that to improve the reports, a way of improving the formatting and the legibility of the reports has to be devised. The end goal here would be that of ending up with business reports that are well-formatted and easy to make sense of.
Methods used to improve the reports that are generated from database applications
At the most fundamental level, the only way in which reports can be generated from database applications is by querying the databases. After entering a query into a database, you get a basic/raw report which, as we observed above, tends to be rather poorly formatted and therefore hard to make sense of. But once the basic report has been generated (following a query to the database), it can subsequently be formatted in a better way. One rather primitive way in which this formatting can be done is by copying the results of the query into a word-processor, and then formatting them nicely. Under this approach, you can even go a step further, to create a summary from the query results. That way, you can be able to present business executives with figures and facts that are rendered in paragraphs, rather than presenting them with rows and columns of data.
Another method that can be used to improve the reports that are generated from database applications is by making use of reporting software. You can create your own reporting software in-house. Alternatively, you can use the ready-made reporting software packages that are available in the market. Some of the ready-made reporting software packages are proprietary, and you have to pay some fees to be able to use them. Others are open source reporting software packages, which you can use free of charge. It is worth mentioning that some database applications come with in-built ‘reporting’ modules.
Deploying the reporting software packages
Most database applications come with Application Programmer Interfaces (APIs), through which you can ‘hook’ extensions – like reporting software packages – onto the database applications. Thus, deploying the reporting software packages becomes just a matter of ‘hooking’ them onto the database applications, using the APIs. Thus, the whole thing becomes a two-step process. In the first step, you get hold of the reporting software package. And in the second step, you ‘hook’ the reporting software package onto the database application, using the API. After that, you should be able to generate well-formatted and easily understandable reports from the database application.
In addition to being capable of formatting database query results into legible reports, reporting software packages are also capable of automating the querying process. This is important. To create a proper database query (in SQL or something of the sort), you need to have a certain level of technical expertise. Yet, in day to day set-ups, the people who are expected to generate reports from database applications are non-technical people. They clearly need help in generating the queries that would yield the reports they require. And most of the reporting software packages come with that capability, of automating the database querying process. Thus, through the reporting package, a user only has to specify the report they want, and the reporting package will automatically generate the relevant query, so as to give that particular report.
Thus, thanks to the reporting software packages, database application users are able to get well-formatted and easily understandable reports. At the same time, the packages automate the process of querying the database applications: to ensure that even folks who don’t have advanced database usage skills can still query the databases, and generate the reports they need.