This sponsored post is produced in association with Workiva.

Decision-making is at the heart of every business. You make decisions everyday — decisions on when to invest, whether to expand or reduce the product line, when to hire new employees, and in what direction to steer the company.

All decisions contain some level of risk. Future outcomes are impossible to predict with absolute certainty, but you can make educated guesses. The more informed your decision-making is, the more you can reduce uncertainty. And the data you gather within your company is absolutely central to all of that.

Data is power if you manage it correctly. But to make the most of your data, you need to plan wisely and follow some essential guidelines. Let’s look at the three key steps for using data to make powerful business decisions.

1. Start with good, clean data that’s all in one place

Good decision-making begins with data gathering. You want to start by pulling all your enterprise data, structured and unstructured, together in one place.

Structured data is easy for most computer systems to digest. This type of data fits neatly into the rows and columns of a relational database. Enterprise resource planning, human capital management, customer relationship management, and other business systems collect structured information.

On the other hand, word processing documents, spreadsheets, emails, and presentations are anything but structured. These text-based files are often scattered throughout the organization, stored on different systems, hard drives, and desktops. Because unstructured data is so difficult to corral, it presents a huge challenge to most reporting systems.

The key to managing these different data types is storing all the information as a single source. When data is stored as a single source, users can change information in one place, and the updates will propagate everywhere else the information is used.

A reporting system that provides a single source of data will save you significant time and effort and dramatically reduce errors. You can imagine how useful this type of complex data linking is when dealing with an SEC report or any other reporting document that is thousands of pages long.

pie chartDownload the “Total Economic Impact™ Study of Workiva Wdesk,” a July 2015 commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Workiva, and see both the benefits and cost savings a major airline experienced with single source data.

2. Analyze that data for important insights

Once you’ve gathered your data, it’s time to look for trends and patterns. Collaborate with your team to combine your findings and get different perspectives. Often, a fresh pair of eyes can spot discrepancies or add data points missed by others.

Traditionally, organizations collaborated by sharing files via email, thumb drives, or consumer-style file sync and share services. These techniques have major drawbacks. They can make tracking revisions a headache. What’s more, you have no audit trail. But worse, the more copies of documents you have floating around, the more likely those documents are to fall into the wrong hands.

You can save time with a reporting solution that offers workflow and collaboration tools that let you author, review, and comment in real time, with notifications and granular security controls. Also, look for a solution with robust permissions, so you can control who can see and edit what parts of sensitive documents.

3. Develop a story to guide decision-making

Even if you have clever ways of analyzing data, amassing a big pile of data is not enough to spur insight. You need a story to communicate what’s behind the numbers. Numbers and facts are still important, but when they come together with a story, they pack bigger meaning.

Storytelling involves pulling information together into a report and a visual presentation. A good story will offer past, current, and future vignettes and paint a clear picture of how you’ve gotten to the place you are now and where your company is headed. This story will inform whatever decision you need to make and guide your next steps.

In the past, creating reports from data relied on labor-intensive and error-prone steps, but it doesn’t have to be that way. New, automated tools for storytelling will help you make the best decisions for your business without spending weeks doing it.

Make the most of your company’s data. Look for an all-in-one cloud reporting application, like Wdesk, that can increase productivity, decrease security risks, and reduce the effort required to produce financial reports. You’ll be able to organize your data and collaborate with others on your team to get a whole-picture view. And you’ll be able to make big decisions with confidence.

See how a major airline gained a three-year risk-adjusted ROI of 187 percent and payback in less than three months by making the move to an all-in-one cloud reporting application. Download the study.

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