Data Preparation Tools Make HR Reporting Easier

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer July 26, 2018

​Data preparation software eliminates the most common HR reporting challenges for organizations dependent on a variety of disparate systems.

HR analysts can spend countless hours manually blending data from various sources and formats, compiling it into spreadsheets and cleaning it up before generating reports. It's a labor-intensive process marred by inconsistency and frustration for even the simplest of reports.

"First, getting at data can be challenging," said Frank Moreno, vice president of worldwide marketing for Datawatch Corporation, a data preparation software company headquartered in Bedford, Mass. "You typically have to request data access or a dataset from your [human resources information system] or [applicant tracking system], for example. But then you've got to take that data and combine it with different data from different sources. You've got to normalize it in order to work with it. That's where data preparation gets messy."

Most in HR are still dumping data into a spreadsheet, or manually inputting it and norming it to generate reports or visual graphics. "Think about having to do that over and over again," Moreno said, referring to all the routine reporting HR is responsible for, from compliance to head count.

The HR department at Berkshire Bank, a financial institution with more than 97 offices and over 1,500 employees across the Northeast, produces reports related to short-term incentive plans, compensation and turnover, among others.

MaryAnne Christian, the sole HR analyst at the company, found it "harder and harder to get the data [Berkshire] wanted pulled," in part because over the years, as Berkshire Bank expanded its operations, "the HR department deployed several disparate HR systems to support the institution's growth," she said. "HR data was locked away in various systems, and it became increasingly difficult to access, reconcile and combine information from multiple vendors and various Excel spreadsheets. The old-fashioned—but prevalent—cut, paste and reformat method in spreadsheets is time-consuming and painful."

For example, Christian is responsible for a weekly report used to track applicants, open positions and budget. "A staff assistant had to compile the report manually, and it was very hard to keep up-to-date. We weren't able to get the reporting out of it that we wanted or compile the reports efficiently," she said.

Unstructured data sources like PDF files are a common problem, requiring HR to manually transfer and normalize the data from the PDF to a spreadsheet. "If you get a payroll document as a PDF, for example, HR must then manually enter the data, transferring all the values from the PDF into tabular rows and columns—a process prone to errors," Moreno said.

Ultimately, all the time spent making sure information is accurate, complete and formatted correctly doesn't always leave analysts like Christian enough time to effectively analyze the data, she said.

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Self-Service Data Prep Eases the Pain

According to a 2017 report from Gartner, a leading research and advisory firm, there are a number of easy-to-use, self-service data preparation tools that enable analysts to "more easily mash up data from different data sources" in minutes rather than hours and display the information in a dashboard format for better visual reporting. Data preparation tools can exist as stand-alone solutions more suited to organizations with in-house IT resources or as integrated components of broader business intelligence (BI) platforms.

Calling data preparation the "most time-consuming task in analytics and BI," Gartner said that the effort is "evolving from a self-service activity to an enterprise imperative."

These platforms—offered by Datawatch, IBM, Oracle and SAP, among others—have evolved so that data and analytics teams can build agile and searchable datasets at an enterprise scale, Gartner said in the report.

Gartner listed the main benefits of self-service data preparation technology as:

  • Time savings. Traditionally, HR may have to wait for IT to integrate data sources, whereas self-service tools put the information in their hands. "The biggest benefit is time savings and being able to increase what I put out," Christian said. "What used to take four or more hours preparing data now takes only five minutes."
  • Ease of use. The tools are designed for users without technical literacy. Christian was wowed by how easy and intuitive the platform is to use since Berkshire purchased the technology in early 2017.

Data prep tools also eliminate the need for upfront data modeling and expand the range of data sources analysts can access and blend, Gartner reported.

Automated data prep will also make the process repeatable for future reporting. "Anyone in the organization can go back and take a look and find which steps the analyst took to compile the data for validation," Moreno said. "Once it's been validated, you can run that report every time and know that it will be trusted."     

Christian said she's beginning to reuse annual reports she created last year. Being able to track what she's done in previous reports gives her comfort. "The data quality is better because I can look at the statistics in a more user-friendly format," she said. "I can see if there is an error from our HR system, or a missing e-mail address, or [if] someone is entered as an exempt person with an hourly rate. Those types of things aren't easy to see on an Excel spreadsheet."

The greater value to the company is that HR analysts can expand from operational reporting to doing more with people analytics, Moreno said.

Christian said that previously, she felt that she was scrambling to deliver reports on time. "Now I have the ability and the time to actually tell a story with the data and present it in a cohesive manner," she said.



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