The most fundamental reason for implementing a business intelligence (BI) solution is to gain access to the right information about your business at the right time. But this only scratches the surface of a complete definition of the term.

BI lets you plug into the information in your business’ different technology applications — and by extension your departments, such as accounting/financial, sales and HR — and see the information you need in a standard and clear way, so that you can use it to make the right decisions quickly.

When you set up BI, different departments, which previously could not communicate with each other, can now speak the same language. Why? Because every department’s data, now connected to a BI system, is in a format consistent with every other part of the business. And not only will the applications start to speak the same language, so will your people.

These newly eased communications will also bring your company what is commonly referred to as a single version of the truth. This means instead of having meetings in which many different people use many different types of internal numbers to back up their arguments, everyone will be looking at standardized data they can all agree on.

“Everyone will be singing the same tune,” says Kobana Abukari, BI practice leader and business solutions consultant at Ottawa’s Corporate Renaissance Group. Functional “silos” of information are broken down. You can now maximize your investment in operational systems, and your organization gains a high-level view of every aspect of the business (at least every aspect that is connected to your BI system).

For example, you can undertake standard reporting, and see specific reports daily, weekly or quarterly, monthly, whatever your preference.

“Also you can do ad hoc analysis with BI,” says Abukari. This might be required when a standard report is not telling you the whole story. For example, your numbers may indicate that your sales are growing by 50 per cent. Sounds good, but if your employee base has grown by 200 per cent in the same period, you are not really improving, says Abukari. “You must be able to find out the reasons behind certain numbers.”

BI systems can also be used to enable data mining, which essentially allows you to see patterns in data that you were previously unable to see. For example, offers Abukari, you can find out if there a particular age group that is buying — or not buying — one specific product in your catalogue. If you click on a book title on amazon.com, it will give you a list of other books you might like to read. That’s another good use of data mining. The BI system is letting you leverage information and make decisions that are profitable for the business.

But if you’re a smaller business, you will quite likely require help getting started on BI. You should be aware that most of the time and effort of a BI installation is spent on the extract, transform and load (ETL) processes. Transformation is the key part, mainly because you could be dealing with several systems, with different coding in each. Instead, you need “flat” data, which you will pull together and make consistent.

For example, says Doug Hum, director of marketing and business development at Corporate Renaissance Group, some of your system data may list Canada as CA because it only has two characters available to describe it. Another system may spell it out completely. A third system might use CAN. These idiosyncrasies must be ironed out early on. You may also be required to perform calculations. So a system may list a start date and end date, but you want to see the elapsed time.

Abukari says that’s why this type of work can take between four and eight weeks for a small sized company. But when you do that job correctly at the start you’re well set for the future. “That sort of maintains itself on a going-forward basis,” says Abukari. “That’s a key thing here. I can just come and do a quick and dirty job for you, but the problem is that as you go along you want this data to be refreshed in your system. That’s why it may take as long as eight weeks.”

SMBs are seeing an increase in solution choices however, says Mauricio Rodriguez, senior research analyst with London, ON’s Info-Tech Research Group. Most firms selling BI solutions are seeing the potential of the SMB market, he says.

One big factor is the strong entrance of Microsoft into the BI world, he explains. Microsoft decided a couple of years ago to include some BI capabilities as part of its SQL Server functionality, and it also acquired ProClarity, a Cognos competitor.

“So when you get SQL Server 2005 you get a lot of BI capabilities that, okay, are not as sophisticated as Business Objects and Cognos, but are pretty good,” explains Rodriguez. “You can do query and reporting, and a lot of good stuff with it. So small and mid-sized companies that have SQL Server now have that included in the SQL Server license.”

Microsoft is also planning to integrate a BI solution with Office 2007. According to Rodriguez, employing a user interface that most everybody knows puts Microsoft in quite a good position to sell BI solutions.

But Jaylene Crick, group product marketing manager, at Business Objects begs to differ. She says her company’s main competition in the BI space are customers, consultants and integrators who build customized BI solutions from the ground up.

Regardless of who makes the BI tools, she agrees that BI is a “hot area” because a lot of mid-market companies and even some in the SMB space, are “really starting to realize that the information insight that comes with BI is a strategic weapon, no matter how big you are.”

“In the enterprise space people thought of BI as just plain-Jane reporting, but now it’s more about empowering the end users themselves to do the ad hoc report access and creation right within an application.”

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