May 25, 2011, 8:05 AM — Business intelligence (BI) is one of those buzzphrases that sound super-cool, but are often misunderstood. What is business intelligence and should you care? Do you need to drop a giant bucket of money on BI?
Smart, bold decisions
There is little that is magical about making wise decisions for your business. The fabled steely-eyed rock-ribbed American businessman or businesswoman who stuns allies and competitors alike with daring and boldness doesn't pull those daring decisions out of the air -- the smart ones rely on data and analysis. Lots and lots of data and analysis. There are two general categories of business intelligence: competitive intelligence, and internal intelligence. Business intelligence doesn't have a strict definition and could encompass both, but for the purposes of this discussion we'll limit it to internal intelligence, because it is most important to have a thorough understanding of what's happening in your own shop.
Let's dispose of a popular BI myth right now, and that is the myth that spending a giant wad of money on fancy BI software will do you any good. It won't. BI software suites are marvelous tools, but like any tool they are no better than the people using them. The most important tools are brains, knowledge, and the time to do the job right. Equally important are good data, so you may need to invest some resources in improving your data collection and organization. Don't skim over this step, because as the brilliant Charles Babbage said:
On two occasions I have been asked, 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
What do you want to know?
Before dashing out to purchase exciting new BI software, think about what information you want. The more you think about it, the more you realize that even in a small company there are daunting quantities of information available: sales, revenues, performance of various products and services, employee performance, supply chain, management performance, different departments, IT infrastructure, facilities, customer loyalty, and on and on. This is where the brains come in: knowing what's important. A good BI setup helps you identify ineffiencies and bottlenecks, measure performance, and uncover opportunities.
For example, many retailers use BI very aggressively, like tracking sales hourly, so store managers know right away what's hot and what's not. A shop launching a new product or service wants to know if it's a success, which sounds rather obvious, but I'll wager we've all experienced working for management that tries all manner of new things without taking the time to measure the results. Just throw it at the wall without waiting to see what sticks, or if the cost of stickage is justified.
Open source BI
SAP, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, and SAS are some of the big names in BI, with big price tags. Dealing with these giants of tech is not unlike seeking audience with the priests of the temple, and hoping to be found worthy. Before committing to something that will be sucking rivers of money out of your pocket, take a look at some of these good open source BI offerings. Most of them have free-of-cost community editions and enterprise version free trials so you can try before you buy. It may be that the free versions will meet your needs. If you have programming talent in-house you'll be able to dig into the guts and customize your chosen BI software. Though keep in mind this is a two-edged proposition -- if your coders coordinate their efforts with the project's core dev team and contribute back upstream, then everyone benefits. If you keep it all in-house then you are creating a big maintenance headache for yourself.
Jaspersoft claims that they are "The World's Most Widely Used Business Intelligence Software." The Jaspersoft user interface is a flexible, customizable Web-based framework that is friendly to non-gurus. To use the modern parlance it is skinnable, which believe it or not in the Vulcan-like cold, logical business world is one of the top user wants. People like to pretty up their reports and organize them their own way, which is not as frivolous as it might sound, because presentation is a key element in understanding complex data. Any report is more persuasive when it has a polished, professional appearance.