Regardless of the original origin, ad hoc has come to mean for this purpose. It sounds so official (and kind of intimidating). As soon as you enter the business world, it is everywhere; all you hear around the water cooler are ‘ad hoc meetings’ regarding ‘ad hoc analysis’ for ‘ad hoc teams.’
Ad hoc reporting has come to mean a specific report for a specific purpose.
The antonym in the business world is standardized reporting. Standardized reporting can be used as a base for creating an ad hoc report, but would require some adjustment to achieve the desired result. Most business intelligence reports or other auto-generated reports would be considered standardized reports. For instance, a sales pipeline report with the total dollar by sales stage would be considered a standardized report.
Very often, ad hoc reporting requires some human touch. An analyst or subject matter expert needs to perform analysis in order to generate an ad hoc report. Not surprisingly, that analysis is referred to as ad hoc analysis, meaning the analysis is performed for a specific purpose.
Also, ad hoc reporting doesn’t live forever. It is generally a point-in-time analysis with a limited expected life (or a limited timeframe in which the data is accurate or useful).
Similar to the scientific method, ad hoc reports are usually delivered based on a hypothesis (or maybe just a hunch) which requires more data and analysis to determine a result. Ad hoc analysis would be used at every stage, potentially in forming an initial hypothesis and again in producing the appropriate report.
For example, if you're looking at standardized reporting of sales pipeline by stage (mentioned above), perhaps you notice some spikes in total pipeline starting in February. You decide to compare that to the timing of the newly implemented sales qualifying process to understand if the two are correlated. You generate a PowerPoint summarizing your findings for the team, also known as an ad hoc report.
This is where it gets interesting… From a technology perspective, everywhere. Reports come in many forms. You can’t really say all ad hoc reporting happens in a singular place.
The following are familiar examples of ad hoc business reports:
Google, Microsoft, and Slack are just the tip of the iceberg and the most obvious examples of applications containing ad hoc reports.
Businesses are deploying more applications than ever before. According to Okta’s Business at Work Report for 2022, the average organization deploys 89 applications to their business; Larger companies deploy even more applications at 187 on average.
You'd be hard pressed to find a popular business application that doesn’t contain some kind of ad hoc reporting … Box, Tableau, Zoom, Smartsheet, Salesforce, Notion, Miro, Figma, Airtable, Monday, Jira, Zendesk, Lucidchart, SAP, AWS, Confluence… and the list goes on.
All of them could be used to generate, distribute, and/or store an ad hoc report.
There are plenty of benefits to ad hoc reporting. It’s a necessity for most businesses. Even if your company is on the tip of innovation, utilizing predictive analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and some fancy automations to accomplish the majority of company reporting needs, someone in some function is still pulling data into Excel and creating a specific report for a specific purpose. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In many cases, people will continue to default to the tools they know. For most people in business, Google Slides and/or PowerPoint, Google Sheets and/or Excel are those tools. Everyone knows how to use them, so there isn’t a learning curve for creators or consumers of these reports. Also, they’re free (or effectively free) and pretty powerful. For the individual user, creating an ad hoc report in Google Slides based on some data and analysis can be a very efficient and effective method of answering a question.
The slide canvas of Google Slides and PowerPoint allows you to combine narrative and data however you see fit. Google Sheets and Excel allow you to essentially write mini programs to sort, filter, and transform data to meet your reporting needs. For all these reasons, these tools will never die; they will remain ubiquitous.
But it is easy to forget that you don’t have to train anyone to use these tools. Have you ever tried to teach someone to modify a query to pull what they need from Looker or Power BI? Or, heaven forbid, the internal reporting from your HR system? It’s a vastly different scenario. You put someone in front of a data set in Google Sheets or Excel and they know what to do with it. In the case of ad hoc reporting, sometimes a simple data set and some simple tools are best for the job.
Standardized reports are architected to be durable to system and data changes. They are generally meant to last over long periods of time. They are highly repeatable, sometimes requiring very little or no work to get the most recent results. Because of this, they often involve complex permissions for accessing reports or specific data within those reports. They generally require time from highly sought-after specialists like analysts or BI engineers who can tie data together from multiple sources. This all requires a high investment in planning and build.
Ad hoc reports are released of most of this burden. They only live as long as necessary and are often point-in-time representations of data. They don’t need to be architected for all future scenarios, which allows them to be customized and fit a particular result. They can answer a specific question and have served their purpose. Comparatively, they are very efficient.
Because there are so many potential ways to create and deliver an ad hoc report, spanning from formatted Slack messages to complex Google Sheets models, ad hoc reports can often ‘meet the user where they are’, a popular concept in product development. Distributing and sharing an ad hoc report is generally far more straightforward than the delivery of standardized reporting.
Just ask any business analyst or BI engineer and they’ll give you a laundry list of reasons why managing ad hoc reporting across a business can be challenging. A few of the most common challenges include:
Data pulled for a once-off purpose can quickly become irrelevant and out of date. If you’re working on a report, then you get some feedback, and then you iterate on the output, etc… the data can become stale, rendering the report useless.
Data used for ad hoc reporting can be modified or changed unintentionally with little reference to the original source. You run a formula in Sheets or Excel that isn’t quite right or your copy/paste goes wrong and suddenly you're working with inaccurate information.
Ad hoc reports can be difficult to repeat or standardize if necessary. If the information produced in an ad hoc report is very valuable, you may get requests for the same report on a regular basis. Depending on the human touch (and sometimes magic) needed to produce that report again, it can be a daunting and costly endeavor to repeat.
Ad hoc reports can become a digital hoarding and versioning nightmare, with versions on your desktop, someone else’s desktop, the company shared drive, and printouts all representing slightly different information. “Do you have the latest version of that report,” might become a very popular question. Proper processes and information management can alleviate some of this problem, but it’s inherent to the nature of the report as well.
Ad hoc reporting is simply a specific report serving a specific purpose. These types of reports are generally based on ad hoc analysis. They are neither good nor bad, just a necessity to keep up with the chances of an evolving business.