FEATURE1 October 2004
FEATURE1 October 2004
Tim Macer looks at a product that automatically generates reports in PowerPoint, Word, Excel and HTML
Although it is not immediately obvious from the name, E-Tabs Enterprise is a tool for automating the production of PowerPoint presentations and repetitive reports.
Like the established E-Tabs Reader, from which it draws some of its functionality, Enterprise can be fed directly by the conventional, if uninspiring, print files issued by almost any cross-tab package. Set it to work, and it will slice into an existing set of tables and serve them up as a series of individualised PowerPoint presentations, Excel workbooks, Word documents, or HTML pages.
Continuous research projects such as trackers or customer satisfaction surveys often create an enormous burden of work at the reporting end and mainstream tab packages do not produce targeted, bite-sized reports, and certainly not in PowerPoint or Excel.
What takes this tool a step beyond initiatives such as SPSS's MR Script solution is that you do not need any specific technical know how to use it. There is no scripting or syntax to learn and everything is easily controlled directly by the user.
Most of the time you work in the familiar environment of the target program you wish to report in: PowerPoint, Excel etc, plus the special tagging tool that is a key part of Enterprise.
Three steps to heaven
In essence, there are three steps involved on the journey from bulk cross-tabs to personalised charts.
In step one the output is 'parsed' using the established E-Tabs engine. This rationalises the raw tables so all elements can be referred to and picked up: totals, questions, texts, and what relates to what, column by column, row by row.
In step two the report is mapped out. Typically, the user creates an example of the exact output desired in PowerPoint. A template is then created in which every value or item of description that will change is stripped out and replaced with a tag.
Tagging is very sophisticated in Enterprise. The simplest tag will locate and pull in one value from the original tables, or one text caption. More complex tags can pull in selected sections of a table, discard parts, present what remains in a different order, and even perform calculations.
Because tags typically refer to data by their relative location rather than an absolute position – and this can include locating the item by its text label, or self-counting items on a page – many routine wave-on-wave changes in trackers can be handled without any need to redefine the tags or the template. One minor issue is that if there is a tagging error, the error messages are not always particularly helpful in pinpointing the source of the trouble.
The third step is to run the job. Rather like a mail merge, the same template can be used on different editions of the data, and it can be run repeatedly for different recipients, using different data, or using different aspects of the same data.
Even here, there is further scope for automation. Selected reports can be sent directly to the printer, or zipped up and dispatched by email; personalised reports automatically get sent directly to their recipients. Alternatively, they can be uploaded to a website or a corporate intranet site.
The Mori enterprise
Ken Brewster, head of data delivery at Mori, has been trialling Enterprise to automate chart production. Although he explains that it is mainly used with PowerPoint he says: "Enterprise gives me the benefit of going into Word. I can use it to create marked up questionnaires, and tuck the figures and toplines into the questionnaire in Word."
One feature that especially appeals to him is the way the program reveals the actual figures from the underlying tables when each tag is defined. "It means you are certain you are pulling the right data from the table, and that makes it hard to go wrong," he says. "The post-processing aspects are also very clever – to be able to manipulate the data and combine columns of figures from entirely different sources. I think they have put a lot of effort into this – I have been impressed so far."
Brewster has successfully put Enterprise to use on a project where there was a need to create 40 individual filtered reports containing context-specific summaries. It had the added twist that it needed to include data from a study conducted two years ago, then benchmark all the filtered values against overall values. He reports: "I worked out that this would have required about 45 man days to do the reporting, including the checking. I have estimated 5 days of my time to do it in Enterprise, plus two days checking by execs. It is the sort of job that would be mind-numbing without this, and of course, that is which is where the errors creep in."
E-TABS ENTERPRISE AT A GLANCE
Transforms standard research tabular output into PowerPoint presentations, Excel or PowerPoint charts or simplified reports in Word or HTML. Will automate the creation and distribution of individual stakeholder viewpoint and rolling period reporting on customer satisfaction projects and trackers, from single or multiple sources.
•Supports standard, plain output from most tab packages such as Quantum, Merlin, Surveycraft, Mentor or QPS
•Automates production of routine end-user reports
•Provides a non-technical solution to a complex problem
•Can automatically cope with most minor month-on-month changes
•Works on aggregated data: can only filter on what is already there
•Very expensive for occasional or low-volume users
•Error messages sometimes a bit vague
Others to consider
MR Script for project and reporting automation within SPSS Dimensions. There is good support for direct output to PowerPoint and Excel in MI Pro Research Studio. Confirmit comes with built-in support for multi-user stakeholder reporting in its reporting tools.
Tim Macer is managing director of meaning ltd. He writes as an independent software analyst and advisor. www.meaning.uk.com
October | 2004