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What is an Ad Hoc Query?

C. Daw
C. Daw

An ad hoc query is a term originally used in information technology and computer software systems. Most application software programs are created with a programming database that can be accessed by anyone through certain generic queries and reports. This underlying database is usually accessible through menus found within the program. In contrast, ad hoc query software is a specifically designed program that allows users to create their own specific queries. Users of ad hoc query software do not need to have the detailed technical knowledge of computer programs. They simply use a friendly interface that allows them to input an ad hoc query and get the report they need.

The phrase “ad hoc” is a Latin term that literally means “for this.” It usually refers to a solution, method or unit designed to address a specific problem or task, or serve a particular purpose. Its application is very specific and narrow, rather than a general, all-purpose or widely encompassing one. Many people have heard of the phrase “ad hoc committee,” meaning a group that has been especially formed to study a specific issue. Ad hoc committees are often dissolved once they have completed their work and given their recommendations on an issue, which are often contained in a document called an ad hoc report.

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Ad hoc analysis, as used in ad hoc query software programs, is also widely used in business intelligence. It allows the user to find in-depth, or more specific, information that is not usually found in regular business reporting. Using an ad hoc query, business people are able to find the answer to a very definite and precise business question. An ad hoc query often provides the answer sought in the form of a data summary report such as a statistical model or an analytic report.

A business manager or executive, can typically use ad hoc analysis without consulting a technical person. On a computer program, a user-friendly OLAP dashboard is the interface that enables them to access the data that they need. With a series of clicks, they can make an ad hoc query that then “mines” the relevant data from an original report or data source. The process is often quick and easy, even for non-technical people. Ad hoc analysis is therefore very useful to executives who need quick answers so that they can make quick, but informed, business decisions which may lead to the continued success of the company.

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Discussion Comments


If ad hoc means specified individual query, is it something like a help index?


@everetra - While I think that learning SQL may be important, I think that we should understand who the end users are.

For example, people who use Business Intelligence software are usually non programmers (although the software can be extended with scripts and so forth if you want to program it). BI reporting tools are therefore a lot more user friendly, and usually rely on a wizard driven approach to build the reports.

Managers and executives want their reports in a hurry, and they want them looking pretty. They don’t have time for a lot of convoluted SQL syntax. I believe that SQL will always primarily be the domain of the power users.


@miriam98 - I believe that visual ad hoc tools are okay, but I think that everyone should learn how to create a database query in SQL, or Structured Query Language.

This is a language that arose for the purpose of asking questions of a database, and it has a very small set of commands that you put together in sentences that ask those questions.

I realize that for many people, SQL separates the basic users from the advanced users. But I believe that all users should learn SQL for one simple reason: it’s portable.

Once you learn SQL, you can easily switch to another reporting system and write SQL queries with that tool, greatly improving your learning curve for learning that tool. Furthermore, having SQL on your resume will make your marketable as well.


@David09 - I find ad hoc reporting tools in a lot of reporting systems. Actually I can’t think of a single exception.

In the last company where I worked they had a Business Intelligence reporting tool that came bundled with a lot of predefined, “canned” reports.

These canned reports would include things like sales figures for the year and so forth, things that would certainly prove useful to most businesses.

However, the tool also had a SQL query mode. In SQL mode, you can create a new query visually or you can directly type in SQL statements. The tool could be as simple or as powerful as you wanted to be, depending on who the end user was.

Frankly, I can’t imagine it being all that powerful if it didn’t have this ad hoc capability. I find that users typically want to customize their reports and queries and this is the only way to do it.


I first got started programming with Microsoft Access, and one of the things that makes that program powerful (and others like it) is its SQL query builder.

This tool lets you drop different fields from various tables onto a grid, and build your query as you wish. It is a true ad hoc tool, one which gives the database its real reporting power in my opinion.

Not only can you create the queries but you can create things like calculated fields which are aliases for fields that act as functions, which can perform calculations in a manner similar to what you would have in Excel.

You can also filter and sort your queries and pivot them as well, effectively changing the presentation of the data. Like I said, it’s not the only tool of its kind. Nowadays most databases have similar tools, but this is where I got my start.

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