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Understanding Business Intelligence and Your Bottom Line

How much BI is just right for your business?

The term "Business Intelligence" and its acronym "BI" are so pervasive in today's data-intensive lexicon that it's a challenge to know just what to make of it. If you add in all the new trendy terminology such as business process management (BPM), data mining, data warehousing, business process automation, decision support systems, query and reporting systems, enterprise performance management, executive information systems (EIS), business activity monitoring (BAM), modeling and visualization, and so forth, your head can start spinning.

Here is a workable definition of BI that was provided in a Technology Evaluation report from a January 10, 2005, Technology Evaluation Centers article by Mukhles Zaman entitled, "Business Intelligence: Its Ins and Outs":

"BI is neither a product nor a system. It is an umbrella term that combines architectures, applications, and databases. It enables the real-time, interactive access, analysis, and manipulation of information, which provides the business community with easy access to business data. BI analyzes historical data - the data businesses generate through transactions or by other kinds of business activities - and helps businesses by analyzing the past and present business situations and performances. By giving this valuable insight, BI helps decision-makers make more informed decisions and supplies end-users with critical business information on their customers or partners, including information on behaviors and trends."

To put it in simpler terms, BI makes the right information available in the right format to the right person at the right time. Given that virtually all small and midsized businesses (SMBs) crave better information, the kind of information typically provided by a BI tool, the real question is how much of this technology constitutes a good investment of time and energy? Most of the industrial-strength, BI-related tools cater more to the larger enterprises whose business structures are highly complex and whose budgets can accommodate the lofty implementation expenditures. While many of these vendors would like you to think that their pricey, high-end solutions are absolutely necessary for the SMB sector as well, our research indicates otherwise.

Based on the size of your company and budgetary constraints, your goal is to determine what BI tools you really need to drill down and extract the key performance data that will make your company more efficient and profitable.

To start, we recommend that you leverage your existing technology and find cost-effective, easy-to-use BI solutions that integrate with your Microsoft Office Suite. That should be quite sufficient to get you the intelligence you need to significantly boost your bottom line. The real question is how much of BI technology constitutes a good investment of time and energy?

Cutting Through BI Mythology and Hype
To distill the BI discussion to its simplest terms, what businesses need most is the ability to find and extract key information that identifies their strengths and weaknesses and helps them make better decisions. They also want this information to be presented in a timely fashion and in a way that business people can understand.

Given this modest objective, SMB companies must filter through the hype emanating from many BI application vendors who claim that they should invest in higher-priced, industrial-strength BI solutions to achieve their goals. Below, we will attempt to dispel some of these myths and offer some guidance on how to make the right purchasing and implementation decisions for your business.

Myth #1: You really need a "cube-based" OLAP BI solution
Many vendors want you to believe that in order to make the best possible business decisions;

Sure, this makes sense if you are a Fortune 1000 company with numerous divisions and databases and highly complex reporting requirements. Oh, and you've got mega-bucks to spend on trying out different BI solutions that will take a long time to implement and much more time to learn and use. We know that a cube-based OLAP tool does enable end-users to slice and dice their data, perform multi-dimensional analysis, present information in graphs and charts, and more. However, there is a high cost associated with maintaining these cube-based systems. For example, every time a new dimension is added to a multi-dimensional analysis, one has to make changes to all cubes that would use that dimension. Of course, one needs access to very high level programming skills to do that, not to mention the budget to support this approach.

On the other side of the equation are reporting tools such as Crystal Reports, FRx, and F9, which fall into the category of transaction system reporting. If you want to know your current inventory levels or the balance of a receivable account or even a comparison of these indicators over a specific period, these tools are fine. But if you're looking for actionable intelligence that will add considerable value to the decision-making process, you need more than simple reporting tools.

The best approach to BI for SMB companies lies somewhere between these two approaches. The optimal position is one of information balance, existing between formal cube-based systems and simple report writers. The right tool must be able to deliver multi-dimensional analysis, graphing, charting, and more, for a fraction of the cost of an expensive OLAP solution. Moreover, the tool should be modifiable by a user without requiring extensive programming skills.

Make no mistake - having access to an analytics tool can be a very powerful component of your BI plan. Analytics enable end-users to transform data into information, and then get that information into the right hands and in the correct format to facilitate timely decision-making. This can help companies increase customer satisfaction, decrease costs, and increase revenues. However, there is a misconception that SMB companies must invest a small fortune in industrial-strength analytics. In reality, these companies are more interested in the macro view of their business (which BI can deliver), rather than getting so close to the actual transactions that you lose the departmental or company-wide perspective (needed for smarter decision making).

For these companies, it's usually quite sufficient to perform data analysis covering predetermined periods of time - say, months, quarters, or years. Typically, you are examining trends or comparisons of results between periods, meaning that you really don't need to pay for overly expensive applications that deliver high-powered analytics. We contend that the level of investment required for an expensive analytics solution is more the province of the larger company than the SMB market.

Myth #2: You need to toss out all your spreadsheets
With all the high-priced applications now available in the fragmented BI marketplace, it's easy to see why many vendors would scoff at the idea that your basic Microsoft Office Suite is quite adequate as a key component of your BI solution. They don't want you to know that the most widely used BI tool today is an Excel spreadsheet. Almost everyone in the corporate world is familiar with Excel, its minimal learning curve, and the fact that the application leverages a company's existing software solutions. Excel is often used to track expenses, create budgets and forecasts, and create reports from that data. Plus, Excel tools offer many useful features such as graphing, charting, and pivoting, which assist decision-making.

Since many of today's more affordable BI solutions integrate seamlessly with Excel, there is absolutely no reason to abandon this trusty tool that you have relied on for so long. As long as you can access the right data that can help you measure your company's operational performance, the spreadsheet is still the way to go. Of course, if you are accessing data from disparate databases whose information is out of sync, then it won't matter what BI solution you use; you're not going to get accurate results.

Myth #3: You really need to invest in a BI solution to achieve airtight compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley
The Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002 (also known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002) was passed by U.S. lawmakers to reinforce honest and transparent corporate practices in the wake of various public accounting scandals and corporate failures. As with any far-reaching legislation of this magnitude, there is plenty of hype that has emerged in connection with this law. Let's clear up the picture as it relates to BI software and compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley.

For starters, here are two facts to consider: 1) The Act applies only to U.S. public companies and, 2) There is no software application certification provided under the Act. This means that you can't achieve compliance with this Act by simply buying some BI tool. If you are concerned with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance or want to tighten your internal controls as a result of renewed focus on this area, there are software tools that you can utilize in concert with proper management of your internal processes, for reporting, auditing, and disclosure. In general, well thought-out applications can help you in your compliance efforts by making information more accessible and more transparent, and by highlighting anomalies.

A combination of accounting and BI-related reporting tools can serve as a vital part of your overall internal control compliance strategy. As you determine how to respond to the new challenges imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley, there is little doubt that much of your attention will be focused on managing, protecting, and reporting on the data that at some point passed through your accounting system.

One BI tool that can serve this process admirably is an "Alerts" solution that integrates with your accounting system. Using alerts and special triggers, your organization can automatically generate e-mails, launch reports, or generate system warnings without the need for human intervention.

While no software application alone will make you compliant, the right mix of accounting and BI applications can work in conjunction with your internal policies, compliance programs, and other technology investments to increase the transparency of financial events, ensure distribution of critical information in a timely manner, and provide the peace of mind you need on matters of security and access.

Guidelines for a High-Performance, Low-Cost BI Solution
Let's take a closer look at what really matters to small and midsized businesses as far as investing in a BI solution. We contend that most SMB companies need little more than their MS Office Suite and a mix of affordable, easy-to-use BI tools. These tools can help you drill down to the key performance indicators which identify your strengths and weaknesses in operational performance, marketing, and sales-the key components to optimizing efficiency and profitability.

Equally important, the BI tools you implement must be easy to use and learn and must be able to present data in a way that everyone can understand. If you have access to BI tools that can convert all of your key performance data into easy-to-understand terms that management can fully grasp, you have a tremendous opportunity to boost bottom-line performance and overall profitability.

Conversely, if your proposed BI solution is hard to grasp, it likely won't contribute much to your objective of locating and analyzing key, actionable data that can help your business run smarter. Whatever solution you choose, make sure that all of you can figure out how to get the most out of it without needing a PhD. This cannot be overemphasized!

Key Components of a Cost-Effective BI Solution
As you contemplate a cost-effective BI solution for your company, you should make sure that the integrated software delivers most, if not all, of the functions listed below at a price point that fits your company's budget:

Alerts: Alerts provide crucial monitoring, proactive notification, and automation capabilities that help your company adapt to changing conditions and avoid alarming scenarios pertaining to payables, receivables, budgets, sales, and inventory. With alerts functionality in place, you can pre-set a wide variety of benchmarks in all of these areas and protect yourself from missing key time- or date sensitive events or failing to respond to deviations from acceptable levels.

Inquiry: Having an easy-to-use inquiry tool enables you to drill down into a specific area and quickly extract data that is essential to your business. For example, if you need to examine sales trends by region over the last 12 months, identify the top 5 customers for the quarter, or locate the top 10 bestselling items for the last month, this type of BI tool will serve you well.

Multi-dimensional analysis tool: SMB companies want the ability to bring in data from multiple locations and still be able to see a unified macro view of the entire enterprise. Analysis software should help you achieve this goal - providing a quick snapshot of your business and enabling you to drill down into sales and purchasing trends, as well as perform budget analysis. Some of these solutions offer Dashboards - The term "dashboard" has become omnipresent in the ever expanding BI lexicon. An effective dashboard is a graphical snapshot of your business's health that is easy to understand. Some common categories of data (often from Excel) feeding the dashboard are revenues by period, product sales by category, actual vs. budgeted financial indicators, and expenses by category, just to name a few. The good news is that you can take full advantage of affordable BI solutions that offer this type of functionality.

If your proposed BI solution is hard to grasp, it likely won't contribute much to your objective of locating and analyzing key, actionable data that can help your business run smarter

Quick KPIs: Whether analyzing business performance vs. another company or between divisions within your company, quick access to key performance indicators enables you to see how your business is measuring up at any moment in time. This type of solution should possess the capability to compare financial models and actual performance vs. budget and forecast numbers for different time periods. In addition, it should enable you to quickly establish benchmarking of results vs. competitors over varying time periods. Finally, you should be able to export any KPI report or model to Microsoft Excel or Word.

Graphical presentations of data: Viewing data in graphical format makes the process of analyzing performance much quicker and easier. Make sure that your BI solution incorporates customizable graphical views of your data in grid, pivot table, and interactive chart formats. This should be a standard feature, not an accessory.

Flexible reporting capabilities: The ability to create and generate reports (including exception reports) that accurately reflect your company's key performance data is crucial as is the ability to customize these reports and display them graphically, if needed. In addition, you should be able to export these reports to an Excel worksheet or include Excel spreadsheet data in these reports.

Remote access: Most decision-makers conduct a significant portion of their business while out of the office. So, it is essential that they have remote access to a wide range of their company's vital business data any time they want via the Internet. Make sure your BI solution enables you to access your KPI's such as sales, product and customer analyses, income and balance sheets, and inventory reports whenever you are out of the office.

Report automation: In order to stay ahead of the competition, most SMB companies can't afford to sit back and wait for their IT or accounting departments to provide the information they need to make informed decisions. They must be proactive in automating their entire reporting process - from creation to generation to distribution of reports across the entire enterprise. Armed with streamlined, high volume reporting, these companies are equipped to respond to ever-changing market conditions and make the best possible decisions that impact the health of their business.

More Stories By Jean Huy

Jean Huy is a senior director of product marketing for Sage North America. In his duties, Huy leads marketing strategy and go-to-market activities related to the launch and growth of Sage business solutions in the Mid-Market, including ERP and CRM products, cloud services and complementary solutions in the Sage portfolio or ecosystem.

Prior to his current position, Huy served as director of product marketing for Sage North America where he led market analysis, product strategy, product requirements and positioning of the Sage ERP X3 software product in North America as member of the global product committee. Additionally, Huy managed the launch and go-to-market activities of Sage ERP X3 in the North American market while developing innovative marketing programs and sales tools to support double digit revenue growth. Huy earned an MBA in marketing communications from the Reims Management School in Reims, France.

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