The definition of Business Intelligence or “BI” varies somewhat depending who you ask but it generally includes software and systems that gather information and process data for logical and useful presentation. From a practical viewpoint, BI should allow a business to intelligently act on the insights gained from analysis, uncover previously undiscovered relationships, and allow for useful presentation of the data.
Historically, delivering business intelligence was difficult—in part due to the availability of data and the expense of data processing. Even today, companies often have limited access to relevant data sets, creating data silos that result in an inability to retrieve data.
In recent years, technological advancements have alleviated the data silo issue and created access to massive amounts of data. Enhanced connectivity and the resulting proliferation of data has created another set of problems to solve. How can we manage and convert vast oceans of available data into useful, actionable business intelligence?
At the same time access to data has been expanding exponentially, the availability of useful, simple tools for accessing, connecting, analyzing, and presenting data has also exploded. It used to be essential for companies with limited budgets to have an Excel expert to convert data to user-friendly business intelligence. Excel is still a valuable (though probably excessively used) tool in most organizations.
While consulting with many small to medium-sized businesses over the past 10 years, I have seen an increase in the need to move away from Excel to a more controlled, less fragile, reproducible reporting structure without busting the budget. I recently worked with a manufacturing company that spent vast amounts of time and money trying to understand and recreate reports after their Controller and Excel Expert exited the organization. It was a challenging exercise for the new team to understand how the departed individual created operational and financial reports from the ERP and mainframe systems. With BI products available today, this exercise would not have been necessary.
In this case, the previous controller used Excel for everything. The issue was that only he knew what and why values were hard-coded and their origins. Virtually unresolvable circular references abounded. It was as though the entire reporting structure was being held together by bubble gum, bailing wire, and string.
Signs that you should be moving from Excel reports to a full Business Intelligence system:
You have spreadsheets so complicated that only one person knows how to manage them.
As in the example above, Excel can be a terrific tool for analyzing data, but it can quickly become unwieldy and difficult to maintain. Do you have only one person who can manage your spreadsheets? Does everyone know exactly what data they are looking at, and what assumptions are being made in creating the reports?
New reports take too long to create.
When new data needs to be integrated into existing reports, or new reports need to be created from existing data, do you find yourself waiting for results for days or week? An integrated BI tool will give users the ability to create their own data views and reports. For more complex tasks—like adding a new data source—power users or IT staff can get the job done faster and with fewer errors than when using spreadsheets.
You need to pull data from multiple sources.
Spreadsheets can be difficult to manage when data is coming from multiple sources and in different formats. Complicated lookup formulas can be used but are a common source of errors in larger spreadsheets. BI systems, which allow you to “join” data tables in various ways, handle this issue more cleanly.
Today, there is an amazing opportunity for organizations to move away from these Excel-based models. With BI software, you can easily connect to data and develop beautiful, actionable Business Intelligence— and it can be done at a very attractive price point. Now is the time to consider the BI options available to your organization. While I am aware of at least 25 applications to choose from, the utility, complexity, and cost of each solution varies. Having worked with many of these solutions, I know it takes an organization significant time and effort to determine the right tool—both functionally and economically. But this is time well spent to provide real Business Intelligence for your organization.
Joe Beyer is a Business Consultant and Project Manager with Decision Resources. He has been working with Business Intelligence applications for almost 20 years.