What is a report?

In its most basic form, a report is a document that contains information for the reader. When speaking of computer generated reports, these documents refine data from various sources into a human readable form. Report documents make it easy to distribute specific fact-based information throughout the company.

All reporting tools require well-defined data-sources to work with, so that the tools can formulate clear rules for querying, aggregation and data display. Computer generated Reports of all kinds consist mainly of tables and charts to convey their information to the recipients.

The term “report” or “reporting” is fairly imprecise these days and can mean several things. We differentiate two types of reports: “Analytical reports” and “Operational Reports”.

Analytical Reports

Analytical reports usually used for strategical (long term) decision making. They are marked by a high variation of questions asked, where the exact same queries may be asked relatively rarely. To answer the question summary information is more important than a detailed view on the transactions that caused them. In many cases, a time based comparison or aggregation is involved as well. And last but not least, these tools are used for explorative querying where one questions leads to even more questions.

To be useful in a explorative analysis, these tools need to be highly interactive. The resulting reports are usually not stored for long term use – and therefore Analytical Reporting Tools provide a limited set of tools to design the visual appearance of the resulting report. It is more important to get the answers fast and then to allow the user to move to the next question than to spend time on making the results look beautiful.

A chain of questions answered by Analytical Reporting Tools could look like this:

“What are the five top growing products over the last year?
How was the growth distributed over our sales regions?
Why is the southern region not performing as well as the other regions?”


“Show me the weekly shipping costs for our carriers?
Why is that one so high?
What product caused most of the shipping costs on this particular carrier?
How does the same product perform with the other carriers?”

Once the question is answered, it is highly unlikely that the same chain of questions is frequently asked again by other users.

Operational Reports

In contrast, a operational report answers tactical questions regarding the day to day operation of the company. The reports generated are business transaction orientated and support day-to-day activities of the company. The decisions based on these reports are immediate decisions made at the line-manager level. They contain a high level of details required to answer the question or requirements.

Operational reports usually come in form of lists or tables.

Typical questions answered by Operational Reports are:

“Give me the new orders for today”
“Show me the status of our stores and how many articles are left in store.”
“Print me a invoice for all customers served today”
“Print the daily accounts audit logs for our archives”

In Operational reports details are usually more important than the summary information. These reports answer questions that are asked frequently, so the same report can run a large number of times. For this reason, operational reports are “pre-canned” reports usually created by speciailzed report designers (power users or specialists). The design process for a good Operational report can easily take several hours to tweak the design of the resulting document to perfection.

The generated documents frequently get distributed to a larger audience in a process called “bursting”. Bursting is a old term used to describe the process of cutting down the large printouts on endless paper to send off the sheets of paper to their respective recipients.

Operational reports regularly get sent out to customers and business associates. As with all printed material, companies put a high emphasis on the graphical appearance of the resulting document to convery the right public image. They can run off the operational systems and operational reporting engines were traditionally part of ERP systems and other business applications that require printing capabilities.

Pentaho Reporting was originally developed as a operational reporting tool. Its detailed layouting and formatting capabilities stem from this requirement. As part of the reporting process, Pentaho Reporting can access and incorporate data from analytical datasources. The main focus for the Pentaho Report Designer lies in the document generation, and thus Pentaho Reporting is not a suitable replacement for analytical query tools.

The flexibility of Pentaho Reporting allows you to create Guided AdHoc Reports to widen the scope of your pre-designed reports.

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About Thomas

After working as all-hands guy and lead developer on Pentaho Reporting for over an decade, I have learned a thing or two about report generation, layouting and general BI practices. I have witnessed the remarkable growth of Pentaho Reporting from a small niche product to a enterprise class Business Intelligence product. This blog documents my own perspective on Pentaho Reporting's development process and our our steps towards upcoming releases.