Many have prescribed formats, occasionally with templates supplied – the written equivalent of painting by numbers. Sometimes they’re filed for safe keeping. In some cases systematically. Archivists create categories to keep them stored in an orderly manner, either in physical libraries or in electronic document management systems. A presumption being that at some future time somebody may want to retrieve and perhaps read them?
But what is the purpose of a report? They may lead to a conversation with one’s immediate manager. They may be discussed at a senior management or board meeting, but generally only if a decision is needed.
In some cases they’re never intended to be read. If they were then there would be standards set for the intelligible use of English. Jargon and management-speak would be abhorred. Prizes would never be awarded for Gobbledegook. Ernest Hemmingway and William Shakespeare may even enjoy the succinct and accurate prose that ensued.
A lot of regular reports aren’t read. Ever. Producing them is solely an exercise in tick-box compliance. A project manager or similar will have a prescribed schedule of reports that are required from contributors by set dates. Failure to supply a report by its due date can be a hanging offence.
I had my suspicions about this required obedience for a project I was involved in some years ago. I decided one month to test this. Beneath the report’s cover page I cut-and-pasted several pages from the works of John Keats, the famous English romantic poet. Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, while barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue. I thought this could attract attention and perhaps even be a bit of a laugh.
My report was lodged and ticked off as having been received on time. Nothing else happened. So the following month I repeated the performance, this time with a selection from Samuel Taylor Coleridge outlining, amongst other things, how Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.
Again nothing was said. So emboldened, the following month I outlined some health and safety issues as cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon behind them volley’d and thunder’d.
The report was signed off as received on time and dropped into the same black hole as the previous two. But by now my conscience was starting to pang. So I decided to challenge the project manager responsible for receiving managers’ reports.
“I don’t think I’ll submit a management report next month,” I said.
“You’ll be in trouble if you don’t.”
“Really? Nobody reads them,” I replied.
“Yes they do.”
“No they don’t. If you don’t believe me, read my last three reports.”
Game over, I resumed supplying reports of the required standard for the following month and for the remaining months of the project.