Inside intelligence: the business implications

How do you decide how much, if any, BI is right for your organisation? Take a measured approach to implementing business intelligence solutions
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

All businesses thrive on information. That's true for the smallest sole traders and the biggest multinationals.

But what works for one could be too little, or too much, for another — and their needs change over time, too. Business intelligence tools are an important part of modern business architectures, capable of refining the information and delivering business insights.

However, like all big IT projects, they're a business risk, and one you need to assess in detail before starting to deploy a business intelligence (BI) solution.

Corporate culture

Giving employees access to swathes of corporate data will change the way your business works.

First you'll need to assess your corporate culture. Giving employees access to swathes of corporate data will change the way your business works, opening up new routes of information sharing and giving staff more visibility into company operations.

You'll need to be ready for this change if you're intending on giving widespread access to business-intelligence tools. Even just using BI as an executive information system will change things, as automated reporting tools will update dashboards and performance indicators as soon as data is added to business systems, giving employees access to information much more quickly than by traditional means.

Big-bang BI?

Starting off with a big bang-style BI implementation available to everyone with access to your entire store of raw corporate data is, to say the least, dangerously ambitious.

It's a lot better to begin by providing BI tools to a small part of your business, and use this as a pilot programme to help understand the role of BI in your organisation.

It's important to choose your pilot carefully, finding an area of your business that can take advantage of BI quickly, perhaps giving your field service team the ability to plan routes and identify possible product problems early, or your marketing team a tool for exploring the results of campaigns. Sales staff can use BI to explore sales pipelines in detail, and use key performance indicators to understand whether they're meeting their targets.

BI security

It's important to make your business-intelligence tools part of your existing security framework, as deciding who gets access to business-intelligence tools can be complex. Effective BI opens up the data that underpins your business, potentially giving everyone access to everything.

The key to secure business intelligence is a well-defined access control mechanism.

Good BI tools allow you to apply the same role-based access to data as you already use for other applications, letting you give users access to just the data they need to do their jobs. A sales staff member looking at past trends in a specific region probably doesn't need access to the data for another. And if you're using BI in a financial services business, you need to ensure that your business-intelligence platforms conform to industry regulations.

The key to secure business intelligence is a well-defined access control mechanism, one that uses users and roles to manage just who can access data (and how). The current industry-wide shift away from server security to information security helps here, as it puts in place the framework that you need to control the information sources a BI system will use.

There also needs to be control of the output, managing...

... who can view reports and dashboards — as well as just who can author solutions. It's likely that you'll have many more users with view rights for BI results (including the ability to explore result sets) than with authoring rights.

Wrapping the source data with access control tools, along with protecting reports and BI results, will reduce the risk of data loss, and will also give you an effective audit trail, helping ensure regulatory compliance where and when needed.

Training options

Training can be an issue, so it's worth considering BI solutions that work with technologies already in place.

If you're using SQL Server, then it's relatively easy to use its data-warehousing features to build the OLAP repositories needed for BI, and to integrate them with desktop tools like Excel, using its analysis features to create and share results and insights.

Building on familiar technologies reduces the need for training.

Building on familiar technologies like these reduces the need for training, especially if you're giving business analysts the ability to work with BI tools as part of their day-to-day tasks. Using these tools also means you don't need to invest in a dedicated business-intelligence function in your development organisation, as BI extraction and analysis can be handled by knowledge workers.

Web-based reports and dashboards are a common feature of modern BI tools and platforms, and will encourage use of business portals and intranet services. Giving BI a self-service web front end can help track usage, giving you an audit trail as well as a view on just how often and how deeply a BI solution is used, as well as indicating the most popular and most influential reports.

Calculating ROI

Calculating ROI for business intelligence is difficult. It takes time to get an effective business intelligence environment in place, and it can be difficult to see just what the benefits are at first.

You're unlikely to be like the brewery that turned on its BI system to uncover, within a couple of hours, a several million pound fraud that had been running for some time. BI ROI is rarely overnight, and instead is revealed through improved decision-making capabilities, or better and more effective planning.

Business intelligence is a medium- or long-term investment, which needs to be used throughout the business in order to give maximum returns.

You'll find your business running more smoothly — with returns coming from that increased effectiveness and from improved visibility into business processes. Business intelligence is a medium- or long-term investment, which needs to be used throughout the business in order to give maximum returns.

One area where BI will give quick returns is when it's used as a revenue protection tool, spotting patterns of suspicious credit card activity, or changing payment patterns from creditors. Protecting revenue streams has a considerable impact on business — especially in online retail or in financial services.

BI will also help monitor supply chains and partner relationships, helping avoid financial penalties due to failures to meet agreed service levels.

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