Decision Maker

Does Your Company Have Intelligence?

B.I. projects can be complex and expensive, but there are increasing options for smaller shops -- with big payoffs.

Business intelligence (BI) is an increasingly popular IT service in larger companies. At its heart, BI is about empowering non-technical users to dig through the piles of data that the company has amassed, letting them make smarter decisions about how the company should proceed in the future. Often, BI starts off in a specific department, such as purchasing or manufacturing, and then slowly spreads throughout the organization.

BI is about collecting data from every corner of the company: planning databases, salary spreadsheets, customer order databases ... you name it. In some implementations, this data is restructured into a data warehouse, which permits that data to be queried quickly. In other implementations, in-memory analytics analyzes the data in the memory of a BI server and doesn't require construction of a data warehouse. Many BI implementations use both techniques.

Because it consolidates and restructures data from all over the company, BI can often help users spot problems that would otherwise be invisible.

Expensive and Complex
There's no question that BI is useful, but it's also incredibly complex and expensive to implement. The players in this field are huge companies -- Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and so on -- and they make huge, expensive products. BI systems have to be customized to fit into your business environment, taught where to extract data, and taught how to transform that data into a form that will support the questions you want to ask and the reports you want to see. Data visualizations like dashboards and scorecards have to be constructed. As you can imagine, simply gathering the requirements for a new BI system can be a months-long process.

All of the cost and expense is one reason BI has traditionally been limited to large companies. As a percentage of their total revenue, even a massive BI project is affordable.

BI for the Little Guy
Let's be clear: The only major reason that smaller companies don't have BI systems is the time and cost involved, and not because smaller companies wouldn't benefit from what BI has to offer. Quite the contrary, in fact: Managers in smaller companies are typically closer to the action and can make decisions that positively impact the company much more easily than their counterparts in larger companies can. Empowering the managers of a midsize business with the benefits of BI can have fast and dramatic effects. If only BI could be cheaper and easier!

The good news is that it's starting to get cheaper and easier. Major vendors like IBM (through its Cognos division) and Microsoft realize that there are a lot more midsize companies than there are giant companies. Microsoft in particular has a lot of strength and presence in the midsize market. These and other BI vendors are starting to produce more prepackaged, do-it-yourself, off-the-shelf BI solutions. Microsoft, for example, offers "solution accelerators" that help to shortcut the BI design process.

Cognos offers an Express product that's billed as a plug-and-play, all-inclusive BI solution specifically for midsize businesses. Other vendors are also starting to play in the midsize BI space, taking their years of big company BI experience and using it to create scaled-down, easier-to-use solutions.

If you're at a midsize company, you owe it to yourself to start looking into BI. Solutions specifically targeted to midsize companies are often fixed-price (typically, midsize businesses are less likely to haggle over pricing), and may offer free trial downloads of vendors' products -- a good sign of the product being something you can implement without a boatload of consultants. The benefits of BI are widely appreciated. Why not get some for your business?

About the Author

Don Jones is a 12-year industry veteran, author of more than 45 technology books and an in-demand speaker at industry events worldwide. His broad technological background, combined with his years of managerial-level business experience, make him a sought-after consultant by companies that want to better align their technology resources to their business direction. Jones is a contributor to TechNet Magazine and Redmond, and writes a blog at ConcentratedTech.com.

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