If you are basing your knowledge of business intelligence tools on what's seen on television or in the movies, then you are going to be sorely disappointed. Star Trek's Captain Picard can get precise answers to questions by summoning the "computer," but that is still science fiction. In the real world, business intelligence tools simply and easily - hopefully - present back end data to users in a context that they can understand. Most often, that context is in the form of a report. It's up to users to analyze and understand the data that is presented to them. Intelligence only enters the picture when users combine this data with their own expertise and experience to make more informed decisions about their companies. In the end, business intelligence tools are just that - tools. They are not solutions unto themselves.
Despite any limitations, business intelligence tools are a necessary part of business for most sizable companies. As applications, such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) and e-commerce, continue to generate waves of transactional data, organizations need a way to make sense of it all. Implementing these types of enterprise applications may have been grueling. Once they are up and running, however, they produce new data faster than rabbits can create offspring. By now, your company is probably moving beyond the point of creating new data and to a point of transforming existing data.
Now that you have the data, how can you make use of it? There are plenty of vendors and consultants that will be happy to answer that question for you. Before you rush out and purchase the slickest business intelligence tools you can find, there are some key points to consider.
If It Sounds Too Good To Be True...
Cleveland Indians' slugger Jim Thome has a license plate that reads DBTH, which stands for "don't believe the hype." While this may serve as a reminder for the baseball player to keep a level head, it is also good advice for companies that are evaluating business intelligence tools. Backed by analysts who stress the importance of business analytics, the software market for your IT dollars is extremely competitive. In a crowded field, vendors have to do something to stand out to customers. In some cases, this leads marketing departments to be a couple of steps ahead of the particular product they are hyping. If the marketing literature pitches an idealized version of the product that you actually receive, then you had better be prepared for some migraine headaches.
To counteract the effects of a savvy marketing campaign, you have to know exactly what you are purchasing. If a vendor is pitching a specific business intelligence functionality, check the references of customers that are using this tool. If this is going to be an on-site development project, then you had better hear that from the vendor ahead of time. Read the marketing collateral, but evaluate the product. Make the vendor come on-site to perform a demo and work through the proof of concept. When you are evaluating the software, use pragmatic criteria that fit your business. The last thing you want is an 18-month implementation nightmare that never comes to fruition.
Browser-Based Applications Expand Usage
While the heart of your company's IT infrastructure may be running on state-of-the-art technology, odds are that your desktop users are trailing behind. To update the hundreds or thousands of desktops and laptops with the latest versions of operating systems and applications may simply be beyond the scope of your IT department. If this is the case at your company, then only try to update the common browser that is at the desktop level. This cuts down on the labor that is required to update all client/server applications that reside on desktops. It also positions your company to handle the ever increasing number of browser-based applications that your end users will invariably want and need in the future.
"If I walked into a Fortune 1000 company, I would be floored if it was running the latest version of Windows on every desktop. When you start looking at the desktops in most organizations, you find that they are outdated. This restricts a lot of users from using business intelligence tools at their desktops," comments Joe Kopetsky, director of marketing and business development at arcplan (Wayne, PA). "You can eliminate a lot of the problems by having a universal interface to access data, and that interface is the browser. With the browser, you're talking about one piece of software. If you can keep the browser updated on a regular basis, you'll be doing yourself a great favor."
Specific Problem, Specific Tool
Almost every new homeowner owns an all-in-one toolbox that is adequate for most household repairs. However, using a Phillips head screwdriver to remove a screw that requires an Allen wrench is a futile exercise. You can extend this lesson to the business intelligence tools offered by vendors. Some vendors offer suites of products that address almost all of your business intelligence requirements. Others have tools that handle specific functions for specific vertical markets. At the end of the day, the buyer must know what is needed and which vendors offer such products.
"Many business intelligence vendors developed particular tools for particular processes. For example, a vendor's product might be great for ad hoc reporting or for standard reporting with batch reporting capabilities," says Kopetsky. "When an end user had different requirements, however, vendors tended to purchase new technology or create a new product rather than extending the functionality of the initial product." In turn, this led vendors to offer many different tools to end users. These tools can be purchased separately or as part of an integrated suite. As a result, end users have to be ready to handle several different tools - sometimes from different vendors - within their companies. Kopetsky recommends that customers consider a vendor that can handle almost all of their business intelligence needs with one product and then supplement with additional tools as needed. Adds Kopetsky, "Companies will find that some business intelligence vendors have really nailed particular functions with their products. And, for that function, end users may want to choose a specific vendor. For the remainder of their business intelligence needs, you might find a vendor that can handle that load adequately."
Questions about this article? E-mail the author at EdH@corrypub.com.