Why you need Business Intelligence

First lets define what Business Intelligence (BI) is.  My favorite definitions:

Forrester Research: “Business Intelligence is a set of methodologies, processes, architectures, and technologies that transform raw data into meaningful and useful information used to enable more effective strategic, tactical, and operational insights and decision-making.”

Gartner: “A broad category of applications and technologies for gathering, storing, analyzing, sharing and providing access to data to help enterprise users make better business decisions.”

Me: “Gathering of data from multiple sources to present it in a way that allows executives to make better business decisions”.

“Get the right data at the right time to make the right decision for the organization”.

“It is the application of knowledge derived from analyzing an organization’s data to effect a more positive outcome”.

“It transforms data into knowledge”.

So why use BI?

  • Understand the health of the organization
  • Collaborate on a shared view of business drivers
  • Reduce the time to decision
  • Opportunity to save costs
  • Reduce maintenance and usage cost due to multiple reporting systems and silos of information
  • Reduce costs (losses) associated with decisions made on basis of inaccurate information
  • Be able to compete in the market with today’s pace and stay ahead of competition due to use of right business intelligence

Tangible Benefits:

  • Enable critical data and analysis tools as identified for multiple business groups
  • Provide data integrity, simplification and standardization for the business areas
  • Provide dynamic and interactive reporting
  • Allow for data mining and predictive analytics
  • Reports create simplicity and reduce Business Technology dependence for report creation and updates
  • Cost savings by reducing the business users effort to create these reports
  • Rapid access to data from all sources
  • Standard KPI and dashboard reports

Intangible Benefits:

  • Improve efficiency and accuracy of decision support system for management and executive decision-making
  • Reduce manual consolidation efforts thereby improving productivity
  • Provide transparency

The bottom line is BI is no longer a luxury afforded by a few large companies.  It is now considered an essential part of the IT portfolio.

Examples of common business questions that BI can answer:

  • How are the sales territories performing?
  • How are the sales people performing?
  • Which customers are likely to buy from us?
  • What products do our customers buy together?

Many companies have a ton of data, but don’t know what to do with it.  They have business analysts who spend days or weeks pulling together data from different sources to create reports, many times in Excel.  These analysts would like clean data that is more accurate and more timely so they can spend more of their time analyzing data instead of building reports.  They often have many of these problems with their current reporting solution:

  • Are using reports from 3rd-party app that is hitting production data
  • Need to integrate data from a variety of data systems, often in different formats
  • Reports are slow, getting timeouts, and inflexible
  • Need to combine, cut and paste reports together to form other reports
  • Data systems are not optimized for analytical queries, don’t contain all the data needed, and are not available all the time
  • The systems do not have universal definitions (no “single version of the truth”)
  • Does not manage historical context
  • Employees may not the sufficient skills, tools, or permissions to query data systems
  • Want to use data in other front-end tools to do ad-hoc querying and data mining 

So decision makers need:

  • Reliable, secure access to data to do their job effectively
  • Flexibility in the ways they access data
  • Tools to browse and analyze data and view reports
  • Low time-to-impact; low latency query results

So what is the best solution?  There is no single solution scenario to describe what a BI Solution looks like.  There are however some broad categories of solutions that describe common approaches to BI solutions.  In order of increasing complexity and time investment:

  1. Operational Reporting: Provides improved access to existing data from operational systems.  Usually involves the building of an Operational Data Store (ODS)
  2. Business Process / Activity Management: Provides improved analysis and reporting capabilities for specific business processes or activities.  See BPM and BAM and Business Activity Monitoring and Business Intelligence.  Usually involves a real-time summary of business activities from multiple transactional data sources to operations managers and upper management (“Operational Intelligence”)
  3. Data Mart / Integrated Reporting and Analytics: Provides improved tools and access to business users of an application to enhance its value by improving decision-making.  This is the most common solution.  Usually involves the Kimball methodology when building the data warehouse
  4. Enterprise Data Warehousing / Information Management: Provides comprehensive integration of critical information across the enterprise.  Also breaks down the barriers between applications.  Usually involves the Inmon methodology when building the data warehouse

By understanding all of the solution scenarios, you can decide how to approach building your first BI solution.  Some developers may elect to start small by simply providing improved access to operational data as described in the Operational Reporting scenario.  Other developers may decide to tackle the larger problem of providing comprehensive integrated reporting and analytics capabilities to their application as described in the Data Mart scenario.  Truly adventurous developers may decide to tackle the larger problem of Enterprise Data Warehousing, and attempt to provide their customer with an Enterprise Information Management solution which solves the larger problem of providing an integrated view of enterprise information across application boundaries.

More info:

DBA’s, want to earn the big bucks? Learn BI

Business discovery: the next step in business intelligence?

Importance of Data Management for Business People

Microsoft Business Intelligence at a Glance Poster

Putting BI to Work for Your Organization

Three Mistakes to Avoid in your Business Intelligence Project

Why Corporate BI and Self-Service BI Are Both Necessary

Video Business Intelligence Can Benefit Any Organization

How to Start Microsoft BI

Five Pillars for Creating a Business Intelligence Culture in an Organization

8 Ways Business Intelligence Software Improves the Bottom Line

About James Serra

James currently works for Microsoft specializing in big data and data warehousing using the Analytics Platform System (APS), a Massively Parallel Processing (MPP) architecture. Previously he was an independent consultant working as a Data Warehouse/Business Intelligence/MDM architect and developer, specializing in the Microsoft BI stack. He is a SQL Server MVP with over 25 years of IT experience.
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