Business Intelligence: No Hype All Real

Business Intelligence has come out of the hype cycle. It is now a realistic technology tested, tried and ready for mass deployment. Are you still thinking?

Business Intelligence: No Hype All Real - CIO&Leader

If you follow the Hype Cycle of technology analyst firm Gartner, you will find a big change this year. Business Intelligence, which was on the top of the charts for last few years, lost its position. This could only indicate one thing: While its adoption rate of 20-25 percent by itself doesnt reflect this, the technology seems to have found many homes. In other words, there is yet to be a massive tilt towards deploying BI tools, but there certainly is an increasing number of takers.

Unlike ERP, which swamped the enterprises in last one decade, BI is still the choice of a select few mostly those who either have massive customer data or those who are in a fiercely competitive environment. But the scenario is changing slowly.

A decade (or so) ago, simple MIS (management information system) reports were enough to do business and inventory forecasts. Perhaps customers didnt have many options to choose from either, helping a few vendors maintain healthy market shares and consistent growth. Today consumers have got variety, and they are also certainly more aware of their privileges. Businesses need more than MIS reports to analyse markets. To enable intelligent decision making and bringing actionable insights out from the existing data warehouses or ERP data, businesses require tools that could help in looking into the future.

Supported by a software stack that provides insight into business and its operating environment, Business Intelligence (henceforth BI) is one of the most productive tools for progressive, modern enterprises. Most of us, for a long time, werent able to differentiate between standard reporting tools and BI. Standard reporting is a good tool to know the historical data that shows what has happened in the past. It wont tell you why something happened, or whether it can be prevented or improved upon in the future.

CIOs and other specialists who have either implemented or are preparing a BI roadmap need to ask and answer the following five questions:

  • Why does my organisation need BI?
  • What tools does my organisation need and what purpose will they solve?
  • How do I select the most appropriate BI tools?
  • How do I implement BI in my organisation?
  • How do I ensure BI TCO?

Most businesses, by design, are destined to move forward, not backwards. MIS reports, which mostly provide information about the past and churn out data based on past incidents, cannot drive a forward looking organisation. Instead, it can lead to massive errors through incorrect assumptions.

BI as a tool is meant to not only eliminate the human imperfection from intelligent decision making but also assist businesses to look in to the future. It empowers businesses to take decisions based on evidences and not inept assumptions. This very characteristic of the BI tool helps in cleansing the entire enterprise decision making process. It leaves no room for personal biases, enthusiasm and inputs and helps in driving you into activities that ultimately support your business productivity and proftability goals.

BI, unlike plain vanilla reporting, reduces the decision risk and empowers you to you streamline the manufacturing, sales, operational, marketing and many other many activities. In all, it is meant to help produce the most valuable insights from the least amount of resources.

One can easily lose focus at this stage. A lot of due diligence is required to get past this stage of BI journey. As an organisation, one may be used to a plethora of applications from multiple vendors. The lure of a steal may entice a CIO to go with one of his or her existing vendors for the BI stack as well an approach that might prove Faustian.

Relying on the vendors to conduct their interpretation of due diligence and discovery could add a level of uncertainty and disconnect that may result in a reporting tool that does not meet expectations, says Alec Smith, Vice President Projects, at U.S.-based SWK Technologies Inc.

On the one hand, if it is important to ascertain what BI tools to use, it is equally important to know what purpose those tools will serve. One of the biggest issues that a CIO might face is the lack an internal vision. Dont fall for short-term gains. Communication between all important departments such as sales, marketing, production and supply chain to create a 'demand document' is crucial to ensuring that the tools deployed will remain effective.

It might seem contradictory, but it isn't: relying on 'human' wisdom, and on the knowledge and wisdom of many, holds the key. The key here is information. Technology is merely a means to an end. Mahesh Manchi, CIO at Mahindra Resorts and Holidays suggest that a CIO can just be the catalyst of a BI implementation. A lot depends on the business folks on how much they're able to see what the CIO sees. In many organisations the business executives (at operational levels) are reluctant to back these kinds of implementations which finally defeats the whole purpose, he says.

Some CIOs also arent well versed with business, they understand technology. BI is a business issue just like an ERP or CRM. The reason a lot of ERP, CRM and BI projects fail is because they are not led with business focus. If the goals of a BI project are nor well defined, the implementation is bound to fail, says Israel Ptashnik, a business technology strategy consultant and coach at Business Technology Strategy, Israel.

BI can become very confusing at times. Generally, when an organisation realizes that it needs BI, it isnt very clear on what a BI solution should include. As a result, comparing BI solutions becomes very tough. Every solution has its own characteristic.

In such a scenario how would you know which elements to look for in a BI solution? There is a standard checklist, like ad-hoc reporting, ability to take data from multiple sources/databases, and exporting data to Excel and PDF. Besides these, a good BI solution should include executive dashboards and interactive reporting modules.

Executive dashboards are meant for providing information which can help in taking informed business decisions. They can provide timely alerts to an organisation in the event of a problem. These kinds of dashboards generate a number of tailor-made graphs giving a real-time view of the business. The dashboard, as said earlier, can be customised depending on the needs and demands of an executive. Any BI solution is incomplete without an effective dashboard.

Normal reports are a pass. Interactive reporting comes into play here. It fosters improved usability and adoption. It gives CIOs instant access to tons of data at one place. It's a useful tool because it lets you view your data how you want. The interactive reports are an essential part of BI because of the ease of use and flexibility it brings in analysis of data.

The above two functions make a BI tool desirable. Apart from this, the tool should also have the capability to assess the potential changes before you make them effective. The BI tool should be able to use the historical data and tell you about the impact of the changes you are about to make in the areas including sales, revenue and logistics. This kind of functionality gives you a heads up on both risks and rewards even before implementing a BI tool.

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