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The Connected Web

Phil Wainewright

Real-Time Reporting that Users Can Act On

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Listen to my interview with Stan Swete, chief technology officer of enterprise business systems vendor and SaaS pureplay Workday.

In this podcast, hear how Workday embeds real-time reporting capabilities into its on-demand HR and financials applications, and learn why more context-aware reporting options can help business users find relevant information and act on it faster.

Listen to or download the 10:13 minute podcast below:

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PW: Workday, of course, was founded by Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri, who previously led PeopleSoft. And in many sense, it's a re-working of ERP for the 'connected Web'. And one of the things that I like about Workday is the way that it brings the real-time web into core business systems — which previously, there's always been this separation between the business systems — the systems of record have always seemed to work more in a historic way and have this disconnect with what's going on in the Web in the present moment.

And so, we're going to be talking today about a particular aspect of that in the latest release of your application, which is contextual reporting. But first Stan, I just wondered if you could say little bit more about the guiding philosophy behind Workday. What's your vision for the way business systems should operate?

SS: Yeah, sure. I would say first of all, when it comes to thinking about business systems, we absolutely believe there's a lot of room for improvement. Our general philosophy at Workday is to use a new delivery model for the enterprise — on-demand delivery or software-as-a-service, if you want to call it — and modern technology, to make enterprise apps easier to use, easier to change, and easier to upgrade — and easier to integrate. And to do all of this really at a total lower cost of ownership.

And so that's the general area that we're trying — we're seeking to improve in our apps. More specifically in the area of reporting and business intelligence, our philosophy is that you should be able to get useful information out of your enterprise system without having to add on third-party BI tools just to get data out of the system you've spent all your time putting data into.

Right. And therefore it's a business system which is architected not just to provide the financial data at the end of the month that the CFO needs, but also the business data day-to-day that the managers of the operational business actually need to be in touch with.

Yeah, absolutely. That's a big part — you're sort of expanding on easier to use. We believe that existing systems really are targeted for highly trained back office users, and even the reports these systems — these legacy systems — produce are just geared for those users. We want to widen access to a much broader user population within an enterprise workforce and really make information available that's relevant to those people's jobs — not just accommodate the regulatory reporting of the back office — and we really focus on what an operational line manager might want out of an enterprise system.

Right. Okay. So here's the thing with reporting with conventional business software. You're a business user; you want a specific report that gives you some important business metrics you need to do your job. And often what happens when you see that need is, the first thing you have to do is, you have to file a request to IT, and that goes off into a queue. And it might get approved and worked on, and two, or three months, or six months later, you get something back which might or might not correspond to what you originally wanted. And even then, it's probably out-of-date historic data that you're being offered rather than a live dashboard about what's happening today in the business. So how do you, with Workday, go about making reporting and analytics part of the process of monitoring and managing those day-to-day operations?

Yeah, well a big part of building business intelligence and reporting into our transaction systems is trying to keep the access to the data simple. And a second part of that is trying to use the relationships we know in the data, to guide the user to navigate amongst those relationships. So to guide the user to get more detail about a piece of data they might be looking at, we've actually taken — we do a lot to let people drill down and drill around our system — and we've taken a different spin on this to help make it easier for users to directly create their own reports.

Like a lot of systems, Workday has a report writer and our users have direct access to that. We think it makes it easy to create reports. But we've had just recently an excellent suggestion from a customer, that came up with an even easier way to leverage some of the contextual navigation that we do in our system to facilitate report writing. And so what we've changed the system to do is to allow any user, looking at any piece of data that has the ability to generate reports, now gets what we call a related action as they look at that data in the web page where they're looking at the data. They're able to click on a simple item that says, "Create custom report from here" and we will use the data they're looking at.

So if I was wanting to create a report about job profiles throughout an organization, and I was looking at my job profile, we would show my job profile data and map it to the Workday data fields that were relevant to that particular piece of data in our report writer. This would just give the user guidance to selecting the fields they wanted. Once they had selected that, we would drop them into the report writer, with all of the fields pre-selected, all of the data sources pre-selected, and really a report ready to run. And we call this contextual reporting, where you use the data you know, to help you create the report that you want to see.

Right. Okay. So you're there in the application. You think, well, wouldn't it be nice to have a report of this data that I'm looking at? And you can actually click on a particular record and use the information in that record to help you decide which fields you need to see in the report. And then you can go into the report. Then, is that the end of it or can you then, while you're looking at the report, see something that you want — that you find of interest — and do more with that?

Yeah. Well, maybe — that was something that you mentioned at the front, and maybe a better place for me to start in describing reporting was just — how actually reporting works differently when your application really is leveraging modern web technology. You really, if you look at the Workday applications, I think like any modern applications, they really resemble much more a website than previous legacy applications. And so our data, and even the tasks that you use to enter data, are all presented as pages in a website.

And what reporting becomes is just leveraging web technologies — such as links to other related information, and links to detailed information, and search over the whole thing — to be continuously navigating through this web of pages. And so the process that I've talked about before just leverages that fact. It'll take you off of one page you might be looking at and guide you to create a report that appears in another page.

We're doing other things from a — for example, if you're looking at an organization, we'll put a lot a related actions at hand that says, well, if you're looking at this organization, you might want to do something with the organization. You might want to re-divide the organization, or re-organize, or you might want to drill down on the workers in this organization — and here are the pages, the reports and tasks that relate to that.

So for us, reporting is just highly intertwined with taking action in the system. And as long as we can provide the contextual guidance along the way, the user will really figure out whether they look at three reports and then take some action, or take some action and then back it up by looking at this in reporting detail. And that's just how flexible we want to make the system. As opposed to having the user have to understand well, I'd like to run a report and the command number for the report is ... let me look it up in some big menu system.

Right, right. Okay. So we're talking about being able to click on a piece of data and get your report, and then in that report seize, I don't know a slice on a pie chart, for example, and be able to then click on that slice —


— in the pie chart and go to the underlying data — or click through a figure in a table, whatever.

That's a very important concept we have is, reports for us are not just flat data. They are very active web pages and so all of our reports will contain links to more detailed data. They'll contain our own icon that leads you to related actions, as we call them. And they also, where relevant, contain graphics to help give you the data in a picture. And we also do support the ability to, off of the graphics, either drill down to related information that we know about from the context of the relationship of data, or to drill to related actions that you want to take.

So there's a variety of what I would call drilling down and drilling around to take action off the, hopefully, the insight that the reports are giving you. And we don't even limit that to text. We will actually allow you to take action off of aggregate numbers. So — and that's especially useful when the information is graphical. So you may be looking at a pie chart of your head count by business site, and we will allow you to get behind one of the slices of that pie chart to see actually the individuals that are making up the aggregate number for, let's say, the people you have working for you in San Francisco.

And another option I saw when you gave me a preview of this was that the reports, if — when you create a report as a user — if you've got those rights — you have the option to click on a checkbox, and you can have that [data] as a web services output, rather than as something which comes up on the screen. And then you can mash that up into some other application.

Absolutely. Yeah, that gets to the third part of our reporting philosophy. Hopefully, what we try to do with reporting is to make it simple, allow users to get directly to information with, either directly to the reports that we package, or to create the reports that they write. We try to make the reports contextual, that is, we use what we know about the related information to drive navigation to other useful information to see or other actions that you can take.

And then the final part is, we still want to be open. We're trying to build in business intelligence but we're not trying to replace all the good BI tools that are out there. And so we try to make it so that once you get insightful data out of your Workday system, that you have a lot of options for getting it out of Workday and into some other systems where you might do reporting or analysis. And we make — so any report that is created in the Workday system can be turned into a web service at the click of a button. You click a checkbox and we'll create a REST-based URL to feed data to tools like Excel that can consume the Workday report as a data source. We also make it available as an RSS feed for readers to consume that data. So what we're trying to do is make Workday a data source for a lot of other web-based productivity tools.

Right. Well, Stan thanks — great — for that brief overview of some fantastic capabilities, because people used to talk about enterprise applications as stovepipes but this — what you've just described is really the complete opposite of that isn't it?

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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