Until fairly recently, business intelligence (BI) was almost exclusively the domain of enterprise organizations with deep pockets and extensive data-analysis capabilities--well beyond the reach of most small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Not anymore. Thanks in large part to (what else?) cloud computing, robust BI capabilities are now available to virtually any business.
The simplest definition of business intelligence is the transformation of raw data into meaningful and useful information for business purposes. The raw data can derive from a variety of sources--sales history, transaction data, customer profiles, third-party sources--and be put to many uses, such as improving customer service, boosting sales, tightening expense control, and doing a better job of retaining key employees.
BI returns two primary benefits: helping you better manage what’s going on now and providing a clearer picture of what’s likely to happen in the future, says John Kleb, partner, strategic technologies at Sikich LLP, a professional services firm. “It’s pretty amazing what even simple BI will uncover. Data in its raw form is overwhelming and pretty much opaque. When BI tools are used, patterns in data can be surfaced and visualized,” he says.
When launching a BI program, most businesses start by focusing on sales and finance, which makes sense because there is generally an abundance of data available there, and it’s usually cleaner and more organized than what’s available in areas such as inventory, purchasing, manufacturing, or customer service. For businesses involved in service industries, time and billing is often a high-value target for BI ROI, Kleb advises.
However, BI’s potential benefits are much broader, says Michael Starostin, chief technology officer of PlexHosted LLC, a BI hosting services provider. “BI is like accountancy, but for decision makers on every level of a company’s structure. It allows people to see a company’s efficiency represented in a unified format that makes sense in a specific area, no matter who you are--a warehouse owner or a financial company executive,” he explains. “If there is something you can count, you’ll always have something to measure.”
As Tapan Patel, principal BI manager at SAS, a developer of business analytics software, notes, SMBs typically prefer solutions that require minimal IT involvement and offer self-service capabilities that allow them to access, integrate, explore, and analyze their data. “Given its minimal tech requirements, cloud is a great starting point for many SMBs,” he says. “It provides a simpler way to increase adoption and move to production without significant IT hassles.” The upfront capital requirements are low, and businesses begin seeing meaningful benefits quickly. “Support for on-premises, hybrid, or public cloud deployment options is a must for SMBs evaluating different vendors,” Patel adds. “Data integration, security, and scalability are also important criteria in the context of cloud.”
With all the recent technological advancements in the area of big data, especially cloud-based services, the only real requirement for a business to launch a BI program is a fast, reliable internet connection, says Paul Nashawaty, director of product marketing and strategy at Progress, a developer of data-driven applications. Web-based programs make it easy for businesses to develop and create reports from their research. Some of the other advantages of Web-based BI include instantaneous access, convenience, and a higher comfort level that comes from working with the familiar form factor of a Web browser rather than a dashboard, he says.
It makes sense to focus BI efforts in areas promising the greatest return, and for many businesses that means customer data. Sara Vera, data scientist at Insightly, suggests businesses develop “tunnel vision” around their most valuable customer information, such as past purchase history and behavior, then act on those insights by engaging in personalized conversations with customers. “The goal is gain the most knowledge you can about your customers to understand why they are loyal customers, and to uncover opportunities to attract prospects and convert them into loyal customers, too,” she says.