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Think you’re ready to automate your client reports?

February 22, 2019

group of people talking about chart paper

Technology has been recognised as a vital enabler within the client reporting process, but are you really ready for automation, writes Marc Dukes, Client Services Director at investment reporting specialist Factbook.

As investment managers scale, their businesses become more complex and their clients more diverse, the need to speed up the production and delivery of client reports becomes a critical step.

It may sound over-simplistic, perhaps even trite, but investment managers must be clear about why they want to automate and have defined the outcomes they are seeking. Its that principle of S.M.A.R.T again – be clear and simple with your objectives, make sure they are measurable.

Here are some important questions to consider before you take the plunge and automate your client reporting.

  1. How well do you know the data you’re relying on?

Regardless of the nature of the reports you’re looking to automate, one simple fact holds true:  it’s all about the data. Always. To populate your reports, you need to have reliable content sources. In order to automate the production of your reports you need to have comprehensive data sources which are available in machine readable formats and which are consistently presented. It’s also important not to simply try and shoehorn your existing data sources into your new automated process.

A key reason for automating your production process is risk reduction. Ideally you want to feed your reporting process with data that has been sourced as far upstream as possible. That way it passes through as few hands and secondary processes as possible, thereby increasing the consistency of presentation and reducing the risks to which manual handling and repeated reprocessing give rise.

Rather than relying on some old spreadsheet, ask yourself where the data originates and whether that source can feed your automated process directly. The net effect will be reduced opportunities for data inconsistency or error and mitigated process risk.

  1. Have you really thought about the design of your reports?

You’re about to embark upon an automation project. As part of this process, templates will need to be created that can support the rendering of every report variant required. This will have a number of significant impacts.

Firstly, the more report templates that need to be created, the longer the implementation will take and the more it will cost. Now is the perfect time to consider rationalising the variation between similar reports in order to aid the implementation process and ensure that your final outputs are as consistent in look and feel as possible. Besides, it is likely that your range of reports have evolved and diverged over time. Ask yourself whether that divergence is desirable or even necessary.

Secondly, automating your reporting process will necessarily mean that your reports will be consistently rendered from month to month (unless you want to spend significant amounts of time editing your templates between productions). This can often be at odds with what certain stakeholders are used to; they may have become accustomed to being able to request frequent changes to the content or layout of reports from production to production. Accommodating this via an automated process is challenging and potentially costly. Once again, consistency is your friend.

  1. Think about the presentational objects that you are currently using in your reports. Are they suitable for automation or could there be a better way to present the content?

Review your current manual process. Are there objects in your reports that you find yourself manually formatting, month after month? A typical example is charts which feature floating labels. Every time you render the chart in your favourite spreadsheet you then need to spend time moving the labels around in order to make them legible or prevent them from clashing with each other. If this is the case, the chances are that exactly the same issues will arise when that chart is built using your new automated process. Now the option to manually rectify the issues, however, may no longer be available.

Let’s face it, if it was easy to avoid these kinds of issues then your spreadsheet software would already be doing so for you. Speak with your vendor to decide which object types are likely to cause issues and which will render faultlessly, month in and month out, regardless of changes in the underlying data.

  1. Same message, different words (treating language variants)

When designing your report templates bear in mind the possibility that you may need to provide the report in multiple language variants in future.

If you are designing for global consumption then you should consider the following, and factor this expansion into your design and test its impact:

Number of characters
in English source

Up to 10
11-20
21-30
31-50
51-70
Over 70

Average expansion
following translation

200-300%
180-200%
160-180%
140-160%
151-170%
130%

Fig.1: Text expansion when translating English into European languages (source: IBM, Guidelines to design global solutions)

As you can see, being mindful of text expansion when designing your report templates will significantly ease the process of supporting the production of translated reports in future, avoiding the need to create new language-specific variants of your report templates. This same principle should be applied to all aspects of the project in order for the solution that you put in place to be as supportive of your future aspirations as possible.

  1. Have you given enough thought to optimising your process?

Just because you’ve always done things in a certain way or order, it doesn’t mean that things couldn’t be done better. Once again, you’re about to radically alter the means by which you produce your reports, so now is the ideal time to think about how things could work in an ideal world. There’s no need to perpetuate the mistakes and failings of the past.

  1. Have you considered the implications of automation on the scheduling and structure of your production process?

If your process automation delivers on its promise, the time taken to generate your reports will be drastically reduced, potentially allowing you to deliver your reports significantly earlier than your current process. How can you maximise these potential gains? Not only that, but paradoxically, this truncation of timescales can lead to process bottlenecks which were previously not apparent due to the greater duration of the manual production process.

Careful process design and scheduling will allow you to maximise the benefits and avoid the bottlenecks.

  1. Have you managed to achieve complete stakeholder buy-in?

In order to get the most out of your automated process you will need to carry out a wholesale review of everything, from report structure and content, production scheduling, process design, content delivery to report sign-off.

You need to take your stakeholders with you on that journey. This is important not only to neutralise the potential headwind of their resistance, but also to avoid putting in place a process which inherits many of the deficiencies of your legacy process. To borrow a well-known phrase, ‘change what you cannot accept and accept what you cannot change’. The balance you achieve between those two will largely be determined by the degree to which your stakeholders buy in to your vision.

  1. Have you thought about resourcing your project?

You want your report automation project to go as smoothly as possible, and for it to be delivering benefits at the earliest opportunity. Regardless of the solution you select, the input from you and your colleagues will be absolutely fundamental to the success of the project. Unfortunately, the subject matter experts and practitioners who will need to contribute to the project are also the ones who will be tied-up with the ‘business as usual’ (BAU) of your current process. How will you balance the needs of the project with your BAU obligations in such a way as to gain the greatest possible project benefits in the shortest possible elapsed time?

This question is not as intractable as it may first seem. What it does require, however, is clear forward planning by you and your fellow project teammates, and a vendor partner that is prepared to be flexible during your transition through the change.

  1. Capacities: constraints and planning around them

The capacity constraints of your legacy process will to some extent have set the limits as to the partners you could engage with, the markets you could service and the breadth and depth of your reporting output. When thinking about everything from the design of your reports to the structure of your production process, keep in mind your aspirations for the future.

Producing reports manually is by its very nature time-consuming. Unless you have had access to unlimited resource it is likely that you have had to constrain your reporting ambitions on the grounds of practicality, throughput and turnaround times. You can expect that with automation these constraints will be largely removed.

Of course, automation will move you away from your pre-automation paradigm. It can introduce issues you had never anticipated or experienced before, but with careful planning and forethought, none of them are insurmountable and you will soon be in a position to reap the benefits.

Here is the good news: once your project is implemented your report production process will be streamlined, efficient and, to all intents and purposes, highly scalable. Once you’ve met your initial requirements, how are you going to make best use of all this extra throughput capacity?

  1. What does a ‘better future’ look like?

At the outset we talked about a number of basic principles that need to be considered and thought through before the reporting automation project gets under way. These included understanding your data and where it comes from, the design of reports and the role of templates within the process of automation and so forth. We also pointed out practical measures to consider adopting in each area – such as being clear and simple with your objectives; making sure they are measurable. Each of these principles contribute to helping you set out a project-driving agenda.

As part of your preparation plans to review your reporting processes in preparation for automation, you would be well advised to include a post-implementation review. This part of the project is no less important than all the previous stages, many of which we have discussed in the preceding passages of this memo.

If you set out a clear understanding of your needs as a business with measurable objectives and goals, then this is the right time to take a critical view of what you have achieved with respect to those challenges posed at the outset. This is how to know whether the better future sought at the outset has been reached.

If you are automating for the first time you will find yourself having to accept change of a kind you may not have had to deal with previously. That change is a necessary part of transition from legacy ‘bad old ways’ to ‘better future’. Therefore, it is normal: though perhaps from the point of view of reporting teams and other practitioners easier said than done. The better client reporting tools will help ease this transition with good monitoring features and tools. These in turn are vital for process transparency, process redundancy, better management of the key moving parts and detecting opportunities for process improvements. All of which positively act to reduce your reporting risk profile.

Whether you are automating for the first time or the umpteenth, these remain the important questions to consider before you set out on your project journey.

This better future will have helped reduce reporting risk, improve timeliness, increase throughput without undue increases in fixed costs or headcount and maintained reporting quality with consistency without requiring compromises in standards.

Good luck!

Marc Dukes, Client Services Director, Factbook

@FactbookCompany

www.factbook.co.uk

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