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Four Business Intelligence Resolutions for 2009

In times of recession, business intelligence is more important than ever. In the year ahead, make commitments to use BI to beat the downturn, standardize tools, train users and invest in your own career.

Cindi Howson Cindi Howson

Some scoff at them, some dread them, but I, for one, like New Year's resolutions. It has become a family ritual on New Year's Day to write new ones and assess last year's list. My personal resolutions get taped inside the pantry as a constant reminder (not to mention source of ribbing from my family); I carry my work-related resolutions inside my portfolio. In the spirit of the New Year, I'd like to propose some resolutions for your business intelligence efforts in 2009.

1. Use BI to Beat the Downturn

The global economy is struggling; layoffs are announced daily; bankruptcy threatens many. While the government shapes its economic stimulus package, here is one for your company: Use business intelligence to beat the downturn. Visionary companies continue to show us how BI has not only helped them survive but thrive in tough times. Convince your business users and BI budget holders that BI is a partial answer to improving performance amid the downturn. Here's how to make your case.

Find your LOFT (Luck, Opportunity, Frustration and Threat). In doing the research for my book, Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App, several companies described their BI success as a matter of aligning forces including luck, opportunity, frustration and threat, which I dubbed the "LOFT" effect. It might seem frustrating that some factors are beyond the control of the BI team. But when viewed proactively, LOFT can help BI become more relevant.

Threats are a constant, be they customers defaulting on their payments, the supply chain being interrupted or the business failing. By considering these threats you can focus your BI initiatives and spur action. Continental Airlines, for example, began its business intelligence initiative in the mid '90s when it was facing both another bankruptcy and a cash crisis. BI not only helped the airline meet these risks, it helped create a foundation for efficient operations and improved customer service. Today, Continental is one of the more financially stable major U.S. airlines, and it has chalked up years of high customer satisfaction. In another example, Emergency Medical Associates, which operates emergency rooms in the New York metropolitan area, used BI to improve patient care and reduce wait times even as it has faced such threats as soaring medical costs and declining Medicare payouts.

To use the LOFT effect to your advantage, first know your organization's pain points and deliver information that helps managers understand and control these conditions. For example, one business owner I recently spoke to aims to survive this crisis by reducing the aging of accounts receivable, among other strategies. Getting customers to pay within 30 days versus the 45 to 60 days currently experienced will help cash flow. A new report can help identify slow-paying customers, sorted by days outstanding. It sounds like a small thing, but often a business person doesn't know what's possible or how BI can help.

Next, to understand and take advantage of LOFT, business and BI experts need to establish a dialogue. Set a schedule for how often you will meet with your business users, whether casually for lunch or coffee or more formally by attending staff meetings.

Remember that threats and frustrations are not the only LOFT factors beyond sheer luck. You must also consider opportunities, whether to improve customer service, increase operating efficiencies or launch wildly popular new products. If today's doom-and-gloom headlines make you think that's impossible, consider some of the mega companies that are doing well despite the recession, including Walmart, McDonalds and Comcast.

Also look to some of the newer companies – such as Netflix, HomeAway and Zappos – that have made data and business intelligence cornerstones of their business models. Part of finding your company's LOFT is finding opportunities to exploit the data you have amassed. FlightStats, which mines data to determine which airlines have the best on-time performance, did just that. The company's tagline, "When the travel gets tough, the tough fly smarter," could well be paraphrased to apply to BI and business in general.

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