Good quality data is crucial in measuring performance, making decisions and driving change. As technology continues to improve, the ability to collect and use accurate data is greatly increased and often made more accessible, allowing for more accurate analysis to be conducted faster.
Not only have the methods of collection and the granularity of data itself significantly improved in recent years, but the tools used to present it have also advanced, allowing users to visualise large datasets in more meaningful ways and often interactive formats.
However, availability can also be a double-edged sword. It can be easy to get lost in an endless sea of numbers and struggle to derive useful insight from it, or to become fixated with resolving a data issue that is ultimately immaterial or irrelevant when viewed from a wider perspective.
It’s important to keep the end objective in mind whilst completing data analysis or developing a report. There is a lot to consider in order to maximise potential and hopefully the tips shown in this blog will help empower you to unlock some of this potential and provide accurate and accessible insights.
Tip #1 – Trust the Data
As data is foundational to decision-making, it is essential that the insight being used can be trusted. If the core is inaccurate or incomplete, then all associated reporting and decision-making will be affected as a result. This can have massive implications, particularly when data is being used for compiling business cases for implementing energy saving opportunities or compiling business wide carbon reporting for compliance purposes.
As different stakeholders will have varying levels of interaction and understanding of the detail, it's important that the creator is confident in the data. That said, it is often difficult to be 100% confident what is available, due to a variety of reasons, such as missing periods, estimatations, manual entry input errors and missing sites or operations, all of which are common examples.
Implementing a data checklist can be a helpful way to improve confidence, as it confirms that what you're choosing to use within reporting has been reviewed and specifies the checks that have been conducted.
A checklist could also include escalation routes and potentially outline any standard estimation methods that could be applied where data is not available for reporting. This helps to provide transparency, security and consistency of output. The checklist could be as detailed or as high level as the user or output requires, but having a documented checking process in place is a good first step in helping to ensure that reporting and analysis which is being created has been based on trustworthy data. It can also be used to drive improvements for data collection processes where continued issues with quality are detected, enabling conversations to happen between departments or with suppliers to improve processes.
Tip #2 – Consider Your Outcomes
Before creating a report, it is important to consider what the outcome of the work should be. What purpose are you hoping to achieve by issuing ir? What impact are you hoping this report will have? Has it even been designed in order to achieve this goal?
As its primary goal, a report should drive action, but it can also serve other functions, such as providing a company wide summary of energy or carbon use or showing a site’s monthly energy performance by day. However, if it does not enable the end user to ask questions and make practical changes based on the information provided, then there is a risk of endless reports being issued with no improvements being made.
Thinking about the intended audience is important, as different stakeholders will likely want to see different information. An energy manager should be interested in carbon, energy and cost, whereas a Finance Director may only be interested in the costs. A single template could be used to hold all of this information, but then a filter is needed before being released, in order to help get the most useful information to the right contact as concisely as possible, without the need to create multiple report formats.
It can be tempting to try and fit as much information into a single report as possible, as some may think that makes the report informative and helpful. However, this approach can also have the opposite effect in that recipients could become disengaged or overloaded with information, particularly if it is not clear what action they can take forward.
Create your report format with your call to action as the biggest and clearest section so that the end user can quickly engage with the required outcome. The rest of the report format can then have supporting data if relevant or some simple and accessible charts that clearly present the data. For more technical or detailed reports, where necessary a commentary section can be used to help summarise trend analysis and advise on next actions to be taken.
Tip #3 – Set Meaningful Targets
When issuing reports, providing a target figure can be an effective way of allowing the end user to see what their current performance is against this goal. This allows sites to accurately interpret performance even if their understanding of the data itself is not developed, which can often be the case in energy and carbon reporting. By giving report recipients a view of what good looks like, it can empower them to take practical steps on site to work towards a target; if they are already on target, it can provide positive feedback that they are performing better than expected.
Setting targets can also be a good opportunity to compare the performance of multiple sites or operations against each other. Once site-specific targets have been set individually, then delivery against them can be used as a performance indicator across a portfolio, highlighting the best performers and the ones that may require additional input. When sites have targets set, portfolio based reporting such as league tables become very easy to populate and keep updated, which can help drive competition between operations and promote sharing of good behaviours.
Setting targets could be as detailed or as simple as needed. If an organisation is looking to make year-on-year energy savings at each site, then setting a % reduction target using the previous year’s energy data would be a relatively effective method of achieving this. Not a huge amount of data is required to undertake this exercise if a year’s worth of utility invoices is available.
Conversely, if there is a large amount of energy data available which can be cross-referenced with measure data (such as production or sales data), this can be used to set detailed targets. It might also help forecast future energy use (and thus cost) based on expected future production levels.
Setting targets and measuring performance against them is an effective method of producing a report focused on driving action. This approach provides stakeholders at any level with a consistent data output that can be assessed across large portfolios of sites or operations. It can take additional time as part of report development to conduct the target-setting exercise and measure the ongoing performance against it, but the benefits will certainly outweigh the additional time invested.
#4 – Provide Insight, Drive Action
When undertaking data analysis or report development, it can sometimes be difficult to summarise findings in an engaging, accessible way. During the analysis or report creation, consider the likely queries that will follow and try to pre-empt by answering as many as you can. This will help drive your analysis in the right direction and help you summarise the most crucial information. It is unlikely you’ll be able to foresee all queries that will be asked, but by adopting the mindset of the end user whilst working on the report, you will hopefully end up deriving helpful insight.
As well as adopting the end user’s mindset, it can also be helpful to approach the report with curiosity, as this can often lead to discovering insights that had not been initially planned as part of the exercise. Data can often lead you to interesting places, but that only happens if you are curious and seek to know the reasons behind why the figures are what they are, rather than just reporting what is shown.
Gaining insight is often more effective when several data sources are combined. All data is affected by variables and other factors, some of which can be accounted for or used in the creation of Key Performance Indicators or intensity metrics.
For instance, if a list of the annual energy usage of 20 sites is organised in ascending order from highest to lowest and presented as such, then the sites with highest consumption could be viewed as the area for concern. However, if another source of variable data is available, such as floor area or employee count by building, then the energy use can be normalised by the variable data to create an intensity ratio for each site. These ratios could then show that the highest users in terms of total (absolute) energy use were just the biggest sites in the portfolio, and so higher use would be expected. Normalising energy data by variable or measure data can provide a much greater level of insight than just reviewing it on its own, and therefore can allow for much more detailed assumptions and actions to be determined.
Whilst there are many visualisation systems and dashboarding platforms available to help present clear insights, putting meaningful data into a report doesn’t always need to be overcomplicated or expensive. If the analysis has been done in the right way and summarised concisely, even using the graded colour scale conditional formatting options in Excel can quickly provide a colour coded heatmap of low to high usage/cost/carbon that can allow end users to quickly interpret the findings presented.
That said, where organisations have large datasets or multiple formats, it can often be beneficial to review available software solutions to help collect and present their data to maximise insight and ensure this is done in an efficient and robust manner.
#5 – Review and Refresh
Once reporting has been established, best practice would be to continually review the performance of your reports and schedule updates to ensure that the formats are fit for purpose and still able to achieve its goals. This is particularly important for any reporting that is based on targets, as targets will need to be reviewed regularly to ensure they are still relevant.
Reviews should be done in set windows, rather than on a reactive basis. This allows feedback loops to be established with end-users and for changes to be undertaken in a planned and methodical way. If reports are being used for multiple end-users, negative feedback from one user may be positive feedback from another and therefore careful consideration to making updates should be taken.
As well as reviewing the formats themselves, it is also good to review the recipient lists to ensure that the right contacts are still receiving the right reports. If a report is no longer relevant to a recipient, then it is usually beneficial to stop sending it (after checking with them). Sending multiple reports that are not helpful to the end user can hinder the engagement they will have with any other communications issued to them which are actually relevant.
As technology is quickly improving, it is important to keep the design of reports looking as contemporary as possible. What might have looked impressive and engaging two years ago, may well come across as outdated now. For instance, new formats or models of charts may now be available that can present the data in a more suitable way. Format reviews should not take place too frequently as they can take up a lot of bandwidth, but by scheduling regular updates and taking account of end-user feedback, you can help ensure that your formats are engaging, helpful and fresh.
What's more, end-users will likely take notice of a newly formatted report if they have received the previous format for a long time, so this can be an excellent way of re-engaging end users to stoke their curiosity and help drive action.
Kris is our Principal Consultant here at Energise. You can connect with him on Linkedin.