No need to worry, this is not going to be a philosophical post. Not at all in fact. I want to highlight something very practical, with a very practical solution as well! If you want to know something at the end, you must make sure you collect the necessary data from the start. Or, in other words: you must put in what must come out. In my line of work, that means that your bookkeeping must contain details that you need at the time of learning, analyzing and reporting on your activities.
Simple as that
It really is as simple as that. You need to decide at the moment of entering information into your systems, which data you will want to look at later on. Recently, the importance of this was brought home to me again. Someone in one of my assignments wanted to know about the comparative costs of activities in different locations last year. This was impossible to extract from the system because the bookkeeping did not provide any information about the activity by location. The location was not mentioned in the descriptions. There was also no other information included to identify the costs by activity and thus infer location. The only way to find out about relative costs was to dig deep into the underlying documentation and make a whole new overview of costs incurred in excel.
Most bookkeeping systems have ways of adding information to your booking, for instance as cost centre or class. Even if these possibilities are limited, you can include the basic information that you need later on to make an analysis of the costs and income, for instance around location or another denominator, in the description line. It is just a matter of discipline to go the extra mile when booking, and not keep it too short and too simple at that stage. You might write “Trainer, Jun” or you could write “Bakker, 4 days, June”. Or “Bakker, 4 days @ EUR 300, June” or “Bakker, training annual report, 4 days @ 300 euro, June”. See how each successive possibility provides more information to you for use later on?
Maybe you feel this is not for you because you are not using an official bookkeeping system and work in excel only. In fact, that is not a bad thing at this stage! Excel allows you to add as many different columns of information as you like in your data sheet. It lets you play around with what kind of details you want to preserve for analysis, learning and reporting. And that way, excel actually helps you find out the best way to set up a more official system later on. With the pivot table function, you can easily arrange your excel data in different ways to see what works best for you. Using this for some time and learning from how you use the data helps you identify what data you might really need and which would be icing on the cake to have (need to have versus nice to have).
The key in this is for you to think ahead. What will you later on want to know about? What analyses would you like to make? And what kind of data would you need for that? How can you include these data into your systems now, at the front end? Think about unit prices (fees, cost per night, cost per print, etc.) and currency used. About number of units (days, participants, copies, etc.). But also about people involved, topics or locations. Whatever you want to be able to see at the end, you must make sure you put it in, first. You must put in what must come out.
For more tips around preparation, see also my post on preparing for your financial report before starting the activities here.