Business Intelligence tools are a vital means of making use of an expanding volume data that companies acquire on a daily basis. Companies are turning to dashboards, custom utilities that gather, organise and present information in an accessible and highly visible way, that let them effectively measure, monitor and manage the way their data.
There are a number of ways to create dashboards, including using such common tools such as Excel or Access, or proprietary systems embedded in databases. However this can lead to dashboards that are not very user-friendly and difficult to update.
Business Intelligence (BI) tools, take the dashboard concept to the next level. They do not just graphically display static data, they provide forecasting, trend analysis, and drill-down capabilities that can dramatically expand your insight into performance. With a good Business Intelligence tool, you can combine data from multiple sources, view it from different perspectives and distribute it more easily. Beyond simple reporting, BI tools allow a more comprehensive analysis of your organisation’s data.
Not every company needs a Business Intelligence tool, but if you have a solid strategy for program evaluation and monitoring and are already capturing the raw data you need, but struggling to analyse data and make use of it, one of these tools might be a good fit. We’ll look at a few of the better known options—but first, let’s take a closer look at what they can offer, and how they work.
Benefits of Business Intelligence Tools
Business Intelligence tools have grown in popularity for a number of reasons. The most prominent are better data integration, more flexibility, easier distribution of data and better visuals.
Many organisations hold their statistics in discrete information silos, financial data in one, employees in another database and customer information in yet another. Business Intelligence tools let you integrate data from numerous sources, and most can import data from Excel spreadsheets and Access databases as well as other databases with an application programming Interface, which is just a way for programmers to access and export data.
Most Business Intelligence tools move the data into a virtual storage space or cache or even a separate data warehouse, effectively creating a separate storage database. This allows the data to be manipulated for analysis without affecting the data in the original databases. Figures can be loaded manually, or automatically at pre-programmed times.
Business Intelligence tools offer more flexibility than Excel and can display data dynamically from a variety of perspectives and almost in real time. This can lead to more effective decision leading to more profitable business, saving time and money whilst also boosting customer satisfaction.
Business Intelligence tools offer many disparate ways of accessing and distributing reports and dashboards. Staff can view and interrogate dashboards from iPhones and iPads and e mails sent to staff with up to date reports at anytime from anywhere in the world that has internet access. Portals can be set up for specific customers that offer unique access to view predefined performance measures and reports.
However data has to be displayed in a way that is easily interpreted. BI tools go far beyond bar graphs, and can produce sophisticated displays using scatter plots that move with time and spark-lines that show a myriad of data points. Forecasts can be made with differing assumptions from a plethora of different user-inputted scenarios and all this in branded and coloured themes and logos to further promote your company’s brand.
Which is best for your needs?
There is a wide variation in cost for BI tools however the majority of companies will be able to find one that fits their purse without breaking the bank.
To chose the right tool for the job however you need to establish if it fits your company’s overall business strategy, data input and personnel.
Your company needs to have a solid strategy for evaluation in place. Do you know for example how your company wants to analyse its programs, and what metrics you need to track? BI tools will not give you these answers. Time spent outlining the requirements early in the process will save a lot of work and money later. These metrics need to be very specific. Outline the data fields you want to use, and how you want to analyse them. However you choose to define them, make sure you know the basics of what you want to analyse and how you plan to do it before you begin looking for a BI tool.
After implementing a Business Intelligence tool, many companies struggle with improving performance based on what the data shows. For example your company may want to change processes once it gets the reports back analysing performance data from different angles, but if the data in the BI tool is not organised the same way as in your primary system, these changes might be difficult to enact. Data warehousing creates multiple data models, and can result in making key data points difficult to put into effect, if this is one of your goals for purchasing a BI tool, you may want to first consider reorganising your original data model. The greater the difference in the data models, the more difficult or complex the project will be.
You also need to weigh the human side of the equation. What skills do your people already have? Every new tool will require learning some new skills, and training is a consideration. It is wise to invest in IT training to help reduce the learning curve for both your IT staff who are responsible for configuration and maintenance as well as the users.
A Few Good Business Intelligence Tools
There are a number of BI tools on the market, with new ones being developed all the time. More and more of these systems are adopting web-based platforms or using in-memory technology, which means they offer increased accessibility and responsiveness over installed systems, but can suffer when scaling to very large datasets, and require a fast, consistent internet connection. These tools tend to be less expensive than other types, but these are all complex systems that will require someone with data expertise to set up and maintain.
Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services
For users involved in daily operations, these reports allow users to make quick decisions on their daily tasks. Reports can be made available on paper or on the computer with a predefined format that allows information to be presented in a way that makes their lives easy.
For managers who need to see periodic reports that show information in tabular or simple graphs these are ideal as the reports rarely change but they allow them to supervise how their department is doing or seeing the data of the transactions if required.
Excel Pivot Table
For business analyst who need to extract data from their systems in a format that allows them to see summaries from different perspectives. It can also provide detailed information on how some of the aggregations are calculated checking data from individual transactions.
For business analysts who need to have all characteristics of a Pivot Table but also need to be able to get data from other sources, such as text files, relational and multidimensional databases or even data obtained from the Web. They also need to be able to share their data models with other users in the company. They may sometimes need help from IT department to assist them in creating complex data models and sharing them with others.
Business Intelligence tools can relieve a lot of the headaches associated with monitoring and evaluating data in companies. Your company’s needs will depend on what systems it is currently using and how sophisticated you want your analytical capabilities to be. Not every organization needs a BI tool, but if you are already capturing the raw data you need, but struggling to analyse it and make use of it in your company then these tools might be a good fit.
Systematix offers a range of training courses that can help you unlock the potential of Business Intelligence tools.