IT Survival Guide: Get Smart About Business Intelligence

Standard tools and appliances have lowered the barriers to data analysis.
For years, business-intelligence software was used primarily by data-analysis specialists at large companies. Increasingly, BI tools are being used by a range of employees in companies of all sizes. The trick in making the jump is choosing the right software for the job.

The first step toward a BI rollout that's affordable and simple is deciding on a standard platform. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Many companies have spent a lot of money having consultants build specialized BI tools. Sure, your business is unique, but there are only so many ways to slice and dice your data, and many business goals -- higher profits, happier customers -- are universal. So don't get caught up in the build-to-fit hype. There are many packaged solutions that get the job done.

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For companies or departments that need special tools, there are many to choose from: budgeting and planning apps for the finance department; customer satisfaction algorithms for sales; campaign management for marketing. Performance-management tools such as scorecards, dashboards, and reports are available for senior managers, department heads, and even the rank and file. By choosing software that's the right fit, you avoid having users come back asking for customized features.

As you put processes in place around your BI infrastructure, remember that what comes out is only as good as what goes in. Data must be "cleansed" and in a standard format to be useful. If a customer is John Smith in one data source, John K. Smith in another, and J.K. Smith in a third, you've got a problem. A slew of products for cleansing and integrating data exists, and there's no way around that important step.

Increasingly, hosted BI services are viable alternatives to on-premises software. The software-as-a-service approach minimizes up-front investment and you may not need ELT (extracting, loading, and transforming data) experts or data architects on staff.

For companies that want or need control over their own BI systems, new products promise to make it faster and easier to get them going and cheaper to manage. A growing number of BI appliances, data warehouse appliances, and virtual BI appliances are available. Virtual appliances comprise a fully configured BI stack that runs on a virtual machine.

Does everyone in the company need BI tools? Probably not. It's great that software vendors are creating BI apps for all kinds of workers, but proceed cautiously. If people aren't properly trained or if they query data in unconventional ways, the end result could be imprecise information, sluggish system performance, and ultimately bad business decisions. Choose the right tools, set policies, train users -- then outpace the competition with the power of your analysis.