The Report Generation Platform is a tool to generate high fidelity reports (eg. PDF or HTML) on a customer facing web platform, combining data from multiple systems/sources, and generating tables, charts and text with advanced typography and pagination features.
Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Fund Research business needed a better solution for creating, managing and distributing their research reports. The content for each report would include 3rd party market data, S&P research content, ratings, tables, charts and graphs, and was available in multiple page formats (1 page summary, 2 page report, multi-page premium report).
Reports were updated annually, and creation of each report would take weeks of analysis & research, content writing and extensive reviews. As Fund managers paid tens of thousands of dollars for each report, meticulous care was taken to ensure that each report was formatted perfectly using advanced pagination and typography features.
Originally, each report was produced as a PDF from Word, with Excel used to collect the data and generate the charts to be copied and pasted into the report. This was very slow and time consuming, and in addition to all of the effort to combine all of the content together, the analysts and operations teams would need to spend a lot of time ensuring that the reports were formatted correctly according to their style guidelines.
The business rules for each report were becoming more complex, with many varied templates used for different sectors (eg. an International Equity report would have different content to an Australian Fixed Interest report). Also, the business were adding special footnotes or other logic to show/hide charts or tables in each report based on various data attributes.
Increasingly clients were demanding more up-to-date data, and wanted the 3rd party market data and graphs in the reports to be updated every day – even if the research content and rating were only updated annually. There were also requests to re-combine the research content and data into various different report products, which was prohibitively expensive in a Word/Excel based solution.
It was also too expensive for the business to re-brand its reports, as the effort to manually update thousands of saved Word documents was prohibitive.
The solution was to design and build a highly configurable and scalable Report Generation Platform. The system was web-enabled and client-facing so customers would access it directly to retrieve the latest version of each report. This required many operational features including security and access controls, usage measurement and analytics, as well as operational monitoring and management.
All reports and content were configured with a 100% data-driven configuration – there were no hardcoded business rules or assumptions, in fact the tool knew nothing about fund research reports. A sophisticated hierarchy of configurations ensured that each business rule would only need to be changed in one place, and it would be utilised by every report or template that used that content.
All charts, tables and graphs were automatically generated within the reports, creating zero effort to combine content from multiple sources. Formatting of text and content was automatic (to match style guidelines), with optional markup permitted to allow formatting bolding, superscript, bullets, links etc.
A plug-in framework allowed easy extension of the platform to support external authorisation modules, and various charting and content generation modules. For instance, a single request for a PDF report could be configured to invoke plug-ins to source content from a file system, data from a database, generate some charts locally, request some charts from 3rd party charting software and then format and combine the data into a PDF report based on configured templates.
Some key features were also added to support the rating process. Previews of draft reports could be generated by analysts in 1-2 seconds with the same business rules and formatting as a live report, but using an entirely different data source to access the draft research content. Similarly, a special fund manager preview report could be generated with final rating decision and content omitted, but with factual research included for pre-publishing review by fund manager.
The system was also very fast. It had a highly scalable architecture (suitable for horizontal scaling), with near real-time dependency management. It could cache reports and also any components of reports (charts, data etc), and it had smart dependency management to automatically re-generate any report or component if a dependency changed.
The Report Generation Platform was originally created for S&P Fund Research Australia, but after discovering similar problems and challenges for the S&P Europe business, the platform was shared and utilised globally. After the initial proof of concept and deployment, the European instance was entirely maintained and managed by the London office. A key enhancement added to the platform was the ability for language catalogs, so that the European reports could be simultaneously published in English, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Spanish.
Lonsec Australia had similar challenges, and although the original Report Generation Platform implementation was owned by S&P, we developed a similar capability for Lonsec with some common design patterns and technology. This reduced report generation times from 30-60 seconds down to 1-2 seconds, and enabled a Business Analyst (BA) to configure reports in less time than it used to take them to write the specification!
The most expensive cost in a Research business is the wages of the analysts, and the productivity benefits of this platform and associated systems delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual cost savings. This time was saved by the removal of manual chart and report assembly, the automation of report formatting, sharing of common content across reports and the fast turnaround of reports during the research process.
From a client perspective, the reports served by this report platform were more accurate and timely. Changes to market data would be reflected within reports within seconds of the data change being received, and new variations of report products could be tailored for clients with minimal effort. Further advanced features such as co-branding of logos and content for clients also became possible, and site and report rebranding could be applied in real-time to the site without an outage.
From a staff perspective, this tool was a major time saver and productivity gain for producing reports. It also allowed easy changes or adjustments to reports, so updates to templates or new products could be constructed on the fly in a meeting (adding a panel or changing a rule and then re-display a report). This meant that the report “mockup” was actually the real report, and key business stakeholders could see exactly how that report would appear.