Data Preparation Q&A: Insights from the Workiva Product Team

July 10, 2018

Workiva recently launched Prep, a powerful new data preparation solution that enables finance teams to unify and enrich large amounts of different system data and accelerate business insights.

We sat down with the Workiva product team to discuss the growing demand for data preparation, the impact Prep will have on finance teams, and what the future holds. Here is what they had to say.

What is self-service data preparation and what business challenge does it address?

Will Gregg, Vice President of Solutions: People always want bigger spreadsheets, more links, more tabs. We understand the types of problems our customers are trying to solve, and the answer is not always bigger spreadsheets. We need to complement spreadsheets with a solution designed to work the way users want at scale. That's Prep. Prep is the bridge to the enterprise—it's the pipeline that gets data from disparate source systems and prepares it for reporting in Wdesk in a simple yet robust way.

Dillon Jenkins, Senior Program Manager: At Workiva, we solve a broad set of reporting challenges, so we're not siloed to one specific user or use case. However, we’ve learned that it’s finance professionals who continually face challenges around accessing and managing data at scale. Finance teams are repeatedly asked to pull data from across the organization and put it together in a meaningful way in order to better inform strategy and decision-making.

How does self-service data preparation transform financial planning and analysis (FP&A)?

Michael Cox, Senior Program Manager: We've seen an empowerment gap where end users in finance struggle to gain access to the level of detail needed to streamline their reporting and analysis process. Prep opens the door for them to get at a level of detail not easily possible before. Traditionally, teams relied on canned, pre-built, summarized reports with little control over how they were produced. Now, Prep users have access to more granular data with the ability to condense, map, and build custom views in a way that best fits their needs.

DJ: Wdesk enabled our finance customers to streamline and de-risk the reporting process for financial planning. Prep takes this a step further by giving them more control over how data is manipulated and transformed in preparation for reporting, unifying what used to be a fragmented process. In addition, Prep supports the scale and breadth of data that empowers finance teams to quickly explore their data, ask questions, and perform ad hoc analysis to address the demands of the business.

What has happened in the marketplace that demonstrated the need for data exploration tools like Prep?

MC: Many organizations we talked to treated spreadsheets like a custom database to feed their reporting processes, which siloed the data, wasn’t scalable, and oftentimes crashed. Spreadsheets weren't designed to manage and query large volumes of data. They're better for quick interactions—where you can calculate, customize, and conduct ad hoc reporting on the fly—whereas Prep is designed to house enormous amounts of data from many different sources. In Prep, you can actually create relationships across datasets and streamline how you process and transform that data. This results in a consistent flow of data into a distilled, organized form that directly feeds all of your downstream reporting.

DJ: In my previous experience supporting large financial institutions, I heard the same narrative over and over again: they loved the reporting platform and the capabilities that Wdesk delivered, but a lot of their time was spent wrangling data outside the platform. Solving our customers' challenges around data preparation was an obvious next step and the natural progression for us to continue to deliver value.

WG: One of the categories that has let a lot of businesses down is business intelligence, or BI. It's great for planned scenarios—where there is an understanding of the questions that require answers before they are asked—but we kept hearing people asking for more. "How do I interrogate my data in a more ad hoc way?" We've seen customers abandon traditional BI products because they don't fully solve the problem, and they don't get users to the finish line: the productionized report where the insight is ultimately consumed by both internal and external audiences. Business users need to layer in additional context, explanation, and narrative, those things that are really, really important to insightful reporting. The combination of capabilities with Wdata and Wdesk provides a solution to that problem in a way that is unique in the market.

What are additional benefits of Prep?

WG: As we roll out Prep, our focal point is on helping the office of finance. A lot of our early customers are kind of the "fixers" within their respective organizations. They are the folks internally who have been around a long time, know how to get things done, and understand how the various systems and data fit together. We’ll often see these folks involved in supporting finance transformation efforts as well. They are tasked with making things look easier than they are and rapidly responding to questions with insightful answers. They are the ones pulling data out of different systems and cubes, throwing it together in Excel, cobbling together SQL databases, building Access databases, building SharePoint processes, and all manner of other activity to get to answers fast. Prep and Wdesk provide this audience with a single connected environment to simplify, streamline, and de-risk those types of reporting workflows.

DJ: Another area where Prep delivers value is to IT. System administrators and other IT staff are focused on data governance and maintaining it throughout the data life cycle. They are searching for integrated solutions that eliminate the Wild West of data transfer and manipulation via spreadsheets and email. With Prep, data can be quickly distributed while still maintaining the control and data lineage that IT requires.

When you have demonstrated the power of Prep with customers, what have been the reactions?

DJ: We met with a large utility company that had to generate dozens of financial statements to comply with various government bodies and their reporting requirements. A multitude of spreadsheets had to be manually updated every reporting cycle. The scale of the data was immense since each report involved multiple periods of data for comparison and trending purposes. They immediately saw how Prep centralized their data, eliminated any manual updates, and empowered them to expand their analysis in ways that previously wouldn’t be possible.

MC: In another case, we showcased how Prep could be applied to help centralize expense reporting at a large enterprise. They were going through a transitional period where they were changing systems, so they had no centralized location to pull data from—but the reporting requirements were still there. This meant dozens of siloed spreadsheets were out there, and they were trying to wrangle all these different sources together. By bringing in Prep, they could centralize the multiple streams of source data and standardize the processing and transformation of that data for over 30 downstream reports. This saved a tremendous amount of time and gave them confidence in their reported numbers.

DJ: We shared Prep with a finance team at a large financial institution that oversaw reporting required for the Dodd-Frank Act. As part of this process, large volumes of data from across the organization were aggregated and modeled to feed reports. Prep provided a centralized location to store the data at the scale, and the processing speed cut days out of their cycle.

MC: Often, reporting teams are dealt the systems they already have. One of our customers was working with over 700 spreadsheets, with around 40 analysts pulling data from different antiquated systems, and aggregating and validating that data together. As you can imagine, it was a painful process. We worked through their process and helped centralize that data storage, so the analysts could now pull from a shared location. We reduced all those Excel files essentially by half, plus provided version control. By using Prep, their data management time and risk was significantly improved.

WG: Prep has really demonstrated the power of modern cloud architecture as well. Storage is readily available, and it's elastic. We can throw as much data in there as users want. Customers will say, "There's no way you can store transaction level detail, is there?" And we've shown we're ready. That's beauty of the cloud: we can load up and perform operations on datasets that crash Excel and Access—even on a souped up machine, and we can do it in seconds within a web browser. You need the power of elastic storage and compute to support ad hoc analysis and reporting on modern large datasets.

What performance levels have you seen with Prep that potential users should know about?

MC: We haven't even scratched the surface yet as far as the amount of data that will slow us down. One customer is already processing 17 million records of data, and views of that data can be extracted and summarized in a matter of seconds.

WG: We're ready to support billions of records. That may seem like a lot, but when we consider data from across the enterprise being piped in, as well as maintaining historical time series, data gets big quick. The point is not that all users will start with that volume of info, or that it will even be purely financial, but that we have a highly scalable environment that is future proof and can grow to support our customers’ reporting challenges well into the future.

What does the future of data preparation hold?

WG: As always, we’ll be working closely alongside our customers to improve Prep in ways that extend value throughout the enterprise, but the immediate future for Prep will be a continued enhancement of the core capabilities: improving and extending our transformation capabilities, providing more options and simpler workflows to connect external data sources, and delivering more tools to support high-performance, ad hoc analysis.

Beyond that, we have some really exciting ideas about how to apply AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) techniques to large datasets to improve discoverability and help customers quickly identify anomalies and patterns in their data. We’ll also be working with our partner product teams to take advantage of the many exciting new capabilities they’ll be delivering, especially around workflow and automation.

We will talk more about Prep at the upcoming Workiva User Conference, so stay tuned for some exciting announcements later this year. To learn more about Prep and see it in action, watch our two-minute product tour.