Timely Information: How Current Is This?
You need timely information for many personal and business decisions. When reports do not include an as-of or effective date, the omission can create confusion.
- By Mike Schiff
- March 2, 2018
In late 2017 I upgraded my prescription drug coverage with my existing carrier and received a new drug insurance card to use in 2018. I stuck it in my wallet along with the old card I used throughout 2017. Except for a single digit in an undefined code, the cards were identical. When I needed to produce my prescription drug card in early 2018, I wasn't sure which one to use. Neither card featured an effective date or an expiration date.
In another situation I needed to check the "terms and conditions" document that accompanied a credit card. Pack rat that I am, I had not thrown out older versions and none was dated or had a copyright notice -- any clue I could use to determine which version was most current.
I'm sure each of us can relate to frustrating business meetings where someone finally asks, "Are we all using the same version of the report (or spreadsheet)?" By comparing entries on our individual reports, we discover that we are not.
Although some of these examples certainly reflect upon my (dis)organizational skills, they also point out how important it is to date documents and reports. This is sometimes easy to forget, especially when we receive an "urgent, one-time" request for a special report. The initial recipients will likely realize that the report reflects current data when they first receive it, but they might be confused when they receive future versions of the report if it evolves (as they often do) from "one-time" to regularly scheduled production.
At the very least, all reports should contain a run date; better yet, they should reflect an "as-of" date (the date the data in the report was last updated). If multiple versions of the report are run on the same day, as can occur with financial trial balances, each version should also include a run time and/or version number.
In many situations, the effective date is more relevant than a run date. For example, period-ending reports run at the beginning of the next period would not include data generated or updated after the end of the report period; corrections made in February would not be included in a January month-end report even when the report is run in February.
By the way, the need for dated reports extends far beyond our professional world of data warehousing and business intelligence. It is appropriate for a wide variety of personal uses such as name and address lists, party and event acceptance lists, household inventory lists maintained for insurance purposes, net worth statements, and almost all documents that would lead the viewer to inquire, "How current is this?"
Our user communities will likely recognize that a document or report they just received contains relatively recent information, but we should recognize that when they receive updated versions and ultimately file them away, it might not be obvious which version applied when. We all know that one of the fundamental principles of a data warehouse is that it contains dated time-variant snapshots of historical data values, and there are many times when users will manually compare this period's report with a previous one.
Furthermore, users who rely on real-time data to, for example, check current inventory to determine how much of an item is in stock, might compare it with historical values to uncover trends. Future ambiguities can easily be avoided, with almost no effort, by simply including an effective or "as-of" date on all reports as well as the date when the report was run.
Finally, simplify your own work by developing good habits. I strongly encourage all of us, and our users, to write the current date and/or version on any undated report or document we receive.
Michael A. Schiff is founder and principal analyst of MAS Strategies, which specializes in formulating effective data warehousing strategies. With more than four decades of industry experience as a developer, user, consultant, vendor, and industry analyst, Mike is an expert in developing, marketing, and implementing solutions that transform operational data into useful decision-enabling information.
His prior experience as an IT director and systems and programming manager provide him with a thorough understanding of the technical, business, and political issues that must be addressed for any successful implementation. With Bachelor and Master of Science degrees from MIT's Sloan School of Management and as a certified financial planner, Mike can address both the technical and financial aspects of data warehousing and business intelligence.