Jun 17, 2013

What You Need To Know About Business Intelligence Applications

There is lot of talk about Business Intelligence (BI) lately. Explicitly or not, it is embedded in the advances in collecting and analyzing data. But as it usually goes, there are few companies that have adopted the BI tools and school of though while many others still lag behind. BI has been around for a while and it makes its way to wider and wide audiences. Still though, there are lot of things that the business and other organizations do not know much about it. I have tried to put together some remarks that cover general gaps and misconceptions. These come from my experience with companies from the Balkans but I guess it is applicable to other regions as well.

1. There is such thing as Business Intelligence
Most of the businesses have high level of understanding and adoption of modern ITC and managerial practices, innovations and tools. However, BI is still somewhat a big unknown. The Data Warehouse Institute defines BI as:
"(BI) unites data, technology, analytics, and human knowledge to optimize business decisions and ultimately drive an enterprise’s success. BI programs usually combine an enterprise data warehouse and a BI platform or tool set to transform data into usable, actionable business information."
I have been witnessing the accelerating growth in popularity and demand for BI in the last 7 years and still there is lack of precise understanding what it is.

2. There is lack of understanding of true advantages of applications of BI tools
Proper and reasonable BI application provides actual and reliable information for operations, finance, orders, sales, any KPIs and other parameters that describe the business. The tools deliver information that is also is fast and easy to navigate as well as ready for any ad hoc analysis. In this way, the application of BI is a tool for fast and adequate decision making as well as one to aid identification of drawbacks and opportunities for the organization and closer look at the customers and competition. Lot is said and written about advantages but few is read and analyzed.

3. BI is associated with expensive software solutions demanding heavy investments in infrastructure.
This is true for the biggest  players on this market (Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, etc). There are two things that worth mentioning here. First, there are many solutions that are relatively cheap and accessible. More and more companies offer good and inexpensive products that work fit well in any company IT infrastructure. Some of these applications are open source that allow very low price and very high match to the specific needs of the organization. There is the option for "hiring" BI tool as well. The other point is that BI is not necessarily associated with a specific tool. The broader spirit of BI is in data organization, identification of dimensions and measures, information needs and application of analytical methods for gaining specific knowledge. Good BI can be organized in tools in hand - spreadsheet software or combination of it with some database that is in operation. Very often the company has all the necessary computing power and infrastructure to adopt a BI solution. Of course, purposely built software is much better solutions as it would contain all the functionality and would guide the process of building the application. I am repeating myself but the key is in the mindset. There are examples of huge investments in servers and software to produce huge pile of data with no good use of it.

4. BI is not a just another reporting tool
Very often the perception of BI is as a fancy reporting tool with some extras. Sure, most of the reports required in an organization could be produced by a BI tool. The examples of the limited application if BI just for producing report are plentiful. However, the true power and purpose of BI is in the different way of presenting and accessing information that is adequate for faster decision making and deeper analysis. Application of such a tool even makes obsolete a good portion of regularly generated reports as it provides much more actionable information for the users.

5. BI is a management tool
Its main audience are managers and everybody else involved in informed decision making in the organization. Thus, it should be created around the questions that management needs to answer in order to run the organization. Focusing the BI application on the needs of a lower level (or non-decision makers) is waste as they usually need fixed report to do their job.

6. BI is not a complex tool
Often BI tools are associated with complex terminology  and concepts. In a well implemented BI tool the end user is isolated from everything that works to bring the data to her - the users works with the well known terminology and concepts of her business. Users quickly pick-up how to use systems built like that. The complexity, if present at all, is in the layer covering the data processing of every type.

7. Application of BI tools and concepts bring fast and accurate answers.
Very often the management request reports that take days and more than one person to compile. These are reports that put together information for different aspects and departments. The long time to complete such reports has put a mark on expectations. The way the information and access to it is organized in BI makes these long waiting time a thing from the past as every bit of available data is on the fingertips. Again, this is the case of a carefully planned and executed implementation - the data does come on the screen just like that.

8. The BI applications should be owned and sponsored by the business, not the IT departments.
There are lots of reasons for that and lot could be said but it would all come from the fact that BI is the tool for the decision making and the ones who are involved should be masters of it. IT does not always go deep in the driving forces behind the business and tends to make things more suitable for technically savvy users. These are the managers that know exactly what they need and could drive the application to be the tool to rely in the decision making process. Also, business picks up much faster the changes on the market much faster and could request adequate adjustment in the BI tool while IT departments in lead results in slower reaction time.

9. BI is available on mobile devices as well
The information is available from everywhere at your fingertips. Mobile BI applications could be valuable tools for successful negotiations, fast access to vital information, alerting and other. However, playing with 30 dimensions and 100 measures is not the best done on a iPhone and special attention need to be paid to the mobile applications in order to make it it really usable.

Each of these topics is huge and I am just touching the surface and the list could also be longer of course. I hope it has been helpful for you.

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