Create consistent and understandable reports in Excel, compliant with the IBCS standards, with FluenceXL (formerly XLCubed).
Standardised communication is a common feature of our everyday lives. We see it in road signs, maps, music, architecture and many other fields. They all use consistent rules to convey something, such as "do not enter here" or "play these notes". It does not matter who the composer was or which manufacturer produced the road signs, consistency is maintained. Without such rules, the readers of these messages could easily misinterpret them, leading to confusion or in some cases danger.
If the importance of consistency of expression is understood in these scenarios, so why not in business? Many organisations will have a design specification, outlining which colours and fonts are to be used, but this is not often extended to data visualisations. Instead, it is left up to the report designer's personal preference as to which chart type is best, how to lay out a dashboard or what title to give a report.
A common visual language for business communication makes data simpler to understand, resulting in better informed business decisions. So how can this be achieved? There are various visual properties at our disposal. Some, such as size and position, are already used in the way we represent numerical values in visuals. Others, such as colour and pattern, are used at the discernment of the organisation or individual creating the report. We are tasked, then, with assigning meaning to these properties so that they can be used consistently.
An effective communication standard would also need to give guidance on structure and presentation of reports. What should go on the page and where?
Finally, these standards need to be easily comprehensible and universal themselves, in order to achieve widespread adoption.
The International Business Communication Standards (IBCS) are practical proposals for the design of business communication. They were developed by Dr. Rolf Hichert and Dr. Jürgen Faisst based on many years of research and experience in the field of business reporting. In 2013, the IBCS Association published the Standards under the Creative Commons license, enabling widespread access and international acceptance.
The IBCS standards are based on Hichert's SUCCESS formula, which can be broken down into three categories:
Implementing the IBCS approach in your reporting first requires software that allows you to do so. Some aspects of the rules can be applied using most software, but only a relatively small set of products cover the full set of requirements, and ease the process of creating reports which follow the standards.
FluenceXL enables advanced report creation in the well-known and easy-to-use environment of Excel. The add-in allows you to work with all the Excel formatting functionality that you already know, with the additional of powerful, data-connected grids, slicers and dynamic charts.
FluenceXL passed the IBCS certification for charts in June 2020 and was re-certified for both charts and tables in October 2022. This version significantly extended the charting capabilities within FluenceXL, introducing new chart types specifically targeted to be compliant with the IBCS rules. The update was driven by input and feedback from many customers and partners already aware of IBCS, and has since had overwhelmingly positve feedback.
FluenceXL Create Message is a tool for creating final-version annotated reports for formal communication, following IBCS standards for report layout. It allows for tables and charts to be easily transformed into a standardised view where a core message, title and annotations can be added quickly, easily and with consistency. This view can then be exported to FluenceXL Web or PowerPoint.
FluenceXL offers a range of chart types especially useful for presenting business scenarios. In addition to the standard line, column and scatter charts, we provide waterfalls, variance charts and overlapping bars/columns. All charts can be displayed as a single chart or in a small multiple layout displaying individual charts for each category being analysed. These can be used to create IBCS-compliant reports and interactive dashboards: for example, vertical waterfall charts are effective in displaying structural contributions to a total, or a variance chart would be used to show the change between two scenarios, with red representing a bad change and green a good one.
All chart types can be inserted into a standard Excel worksheet and connect directly to your data with a simple drag-and-drop design interface.
View our financial chart gallery and use cases
The 'Unify' rule of the SUCCESS formula states that semantic notation should be applied all components of a report. Content that means the same should look the same.
These rules are for all important and recurring aspects of business communication. In particular, scenarios should be formatted in a consistent manner. When analysing a chart or table, it should be immediately obvious if you are looking at measured, expected or fictitious data. IBCS provides suggestions for how actuals, previous year, plan and forecast scenarios should be displayed by styling each with a different area fill.
FluenceXL provides 'Business Rules' as a way to map elements of your data to different scenarios. When these are then plotted in charts, they will be automatically displayed with the correct solid, outlined or hatched formatting.
These Business Rules can also specify accounts that are expenses, ensuring that they are plotted in a negative direction, and which variances have a good impact on the business (green) and which are bad (red).
Once created, Business Rules can be reused in other workbooks and shared among report creators, meaning charts are immediately displayed correctly irrespective of the author, and with no extra formatting effort.
All examples below follow the IBCS templates and were created in Excel with FluenceXL charts.