I was doing a bit of research into bolt-on desktop reporting tools, and figured I’d post some of the results.  My goal is not to point to specific 3rd party reporting packages, but rather to talk about the concept of desktop reporting tools – and propose a taxonomy that may be of help to those currently looking to supplement Microsoft Project’s native capabilities.  Note that I do not intend to talk about server based reporting tools in this post.

First off, let’s do a quick summary of Microsoft Project’s reporting options:

Built-In Reporting Options

Description

Reports Reports have always been one of those features that few people use, but it kind of sticks around because there’s probably one company somewhere that has built all of its business processes around this specific feature.  The lack of graphics and limited formatting options on the Reports tool seem to preclude this from being a serious contender in the annual corporate eye candy competitions.
Visual Reports Visual Reports were introduced in the 2007 product and took us a great leap forward from the old Report options.  Visual Reports allow us to use Excel and/or Visio as our report authoring tool.  Unfortunately, I have found Visual Reports to be a bit limited on two fronts: template customization can be a bit tricky, and most of the out of the box reports are designed specifically for organizations who track metrics around cost and effort.  For those organizations that are schedule driven, and don’t track cost or effort, then the out of the box options are limited.  Some of the Visio reports can be modified for schedule driven organizations, but the results aren’t particularly compelling.
Export to Excel, Access In lieu of customizing Visual Reports, I often opt to just export to Excel and manipulate there.  I am reasonably talented in Excel, but to develop a report in Excel, polish it up, and make it easy to use for the end users will often take me a day or more – depending on the report complexity.  Given that most of the report packages I surveyed retailed at $300 or less per license, the organization needs to make an assessment as to the most cost effective alternative for reporting on project schedules.  That’s easy enough when you have a consultant developing the reports on an hourly basis and you can estimate the workload – a bit harder when you’ve got internal resources doing the development and the costs aren’t transparent.
Copy Picture The Copy Picture option is what I use the most.  Format the Gantt Chart or the Resource Graph any way you want – then simply take a screenshot using the Copy Picture tool and paste into your e-mail, document or presentation.
Gantt Chart Of course, you can always just bring your laptop into a presentation and display the project there.  Some people insist on paper though – which forces you to print it out.
Timeline View (2010) And of course the cool new timeline view in the 2010 product, which can be copied and pasted into any presentation you would like.

So with all of these options, why would you want to go to a third party tool?  Well, there are a couple of reasons:

1) The boss likes things simple and colorful, and those offerings just don’t suffice.

2) Your employer/client mandates it because that’s what they want (read: you’re a US federal contractor).

3) You need to summarize complex information into a single page.

4) You need to evaluate schedules prepared in a wider variety of formats.  For instance, you’re a general contractor, and have subcontractors who submit their weekly schedules as Excel tables or exports from Primavera.

5) You wish to track trends on specific items in your schedule

After reviewing the options on the market culled from my own experience and from the MVP FAQ Site, I cobbled together the following classification scheme:

Criteria

Description

Range of Output Options Some reporting packages produce one type of report, but they do it well, and they provide an infinite number of formatting and summarization options for that report.  Other reporting packages produce close to an infinite number of report formats, but don’t provide extensive customization options for those formats.  For those organizations still feeling their way through a scheduling process who do not have firm criteria, it may be appropriate to opt for the packages that deliver a wide array of output options.  This provides choices that can be standardized as the organizational processes gel.
Export Options Can you export to Excel and manipulate the data, or are you stuck to using PDF and proprietary viewers?
Snapshot/Trend Analysis Capable

To me, this is a clear differentiator between many of the tools: the ability to store a snapshot of the schedule, and to display trends over time.  Few of the tools actually had that feature, but I felt it to be incredibly powerful.  Let’s take a look at a potential scenario:  in construction, I manage an integrated master schedule (IMS) with rolled up summaries for detailed contractor components.  The contractors submit their complex schedules each week, which I then manually roll up to my IMS.

Imagine how much easier it would be to run the same standard report generation off of their submitted schedules each week, save a snapshot, and then be able to review the trends in their schedule, easily, quickly and effectively.  Again, this could be done in Excel relatively easily, but the right tool will make your life a lot easier, and prepare more effective reports.

Ease of Use I admit that I am lazy.  I don’t want to learn a whole new tool.  My criteria was that the tool should install, slap a button on the Project toolbar.  I should be able to click on the button, pick a report format, and be off to the races in less than 30 seconds, without having to consult any help screens.  Other tools required me to consult help screens which quickly exhausted my short attention span.

If you’re looking for a tool, I’d recommend first figuring out what you’re looking for in the above categories – and then use that as a decision matrix against the various options.