Business Intelligence Buyer's Guide
When planning to buy a BI solution, it is important to focus on the capabilities that need to be acquired and the problems that need to be solved. At this stage there should be no consideration at all of what technology the solution uses, or whether the deployment should be in-house or in the cloud, or any other technical details. The buyer's concentration must be on the capability of the solution. One should begin to look at other issues only after solutions that meet the primary criteria have been found.
Selecting a BI Solution
Understanding one's requirements before making a selection is critical because different businesses have different needs. Here are some issues that must be understood clearly:
- Understanding data: users must be clear about the kind of data they hold and what kind of information and insights they seek. This step is absolutely critical because no insights can emerge from inadequate data. If an amount of adequate data is not available, then this issue must be rectified before proceeding any further with procuring a BI system. If adequate data is available, then prospective buyers must study it to determine what answers the BI solution can deliver.
- Understanding users: the next requirement is to understand the type of users that the BI solution will service. Will the typical user require technical support to use the system, or will she be able to handle it on her own? Current trends are encouraging vendors to develop self-service portals that minimize the use of IT staff.
- Dashboards vs. Complete BI: a complete BI solution builds from the ground up with data collection, management, integration and storage. It works with these to deliver aggregation, analytics and presentation. Many companies already have many components of such a data infrastructure in place, and they only need analysis and dashboard capability.
- Buying Full Stack or a Part Solution: businesses can have large amounts of data from different verticals, such as from sales, marketing, R&D, HR, finance, customer service etc. Will the BI solution work across all these domains? Or can the solution only be implemented across a few of these? Businesses often minimize risks by starting with a few key verticals, and expanding the scope to encompass others later.
Different Types of BI Solutions
Research shows that BI solutions handle two completely different aspects of the business. These are:
- Operational and exceptions reporting: these keep users informed about key performance indicators (KPIs) and major business metrics. Much of the day-to-day management of the business needs these inputs.
- Data exploration and analysis: these inputs become vital ingredients to business strategy, and determine future courses of action.
Many solutions will focus on one or the other, but ideally a BI tool should have both. Vendor demos will tend to highlight the domain they are stronger in, so it is up to the buyer to ensure that both aspects are thoroughly explored before making a decision to buy.
Key BI Features
Industry surveys show that most buyers or people influencing the buying process are business users, not IT personnel. This is reflected in the key features demanded by users, which are:
- Good dashboards and scorecards
- Query and reporting tools
- User-friendly interfaces
- Data visualization tools
Dashboards and scorecards are a critical user requirement. Users want highly customizable dashboards that can give them the information they want without needing to ask for IT help.
There are many other key features of a BI suite that are demanded by IT staff. While business users may not know much about them, they are important nevertheless. These are:
- Integration with online analytical processing (OLAP) tools
- Extract, Transform and Load capabilities
- Predictive analytics
- Big Data handling and data mining capabilities
Assessment of these capabilities will have to be made by IT personnel.
BI Vendor Selection
Once some solutions have been shortlisted, vendor selection should follow a three-step process. These steps focus on vendor capability, solution platform assessment and solution capability assessment. Broadly these steps encompass the following actions:
- Vendor assessment:
- - Quality of demonstration and trials
- - Customer support
- - Market reputation and user feedback
- Platform assessment:
- - Ease of use
- - Scalability and reliability
- - Ease of integration with existing enterprise class software
- - Customization possibility
- - Adaptability to changing business needs at minimal costs
- - Quality of reports
- Solution capability:
- - Quality of dashboards
- - Ease of setting up exceptions and alerts
- - Strong data security
- - Data exploration and analysis capability
- - Scheduling features
- - Support for mobile devices
Shortlisted vendors must be given clear inputs to base their demonstrations on. For example, using actual business data (altered to meet security needs) for all the demonstrations is a more comprehensive way of determining the suitability of the software. Vendors must also be informed about the existing infrastructure held by the business so that it can be factored into their solutions.
BI Deployment: Cloud vs. On-Premise
While the debate on cloud vs. on-premise deployment is tilting towards the cloud in many domains of business software, in the BI domain the scales are still about even. Many users are worried about security issues and recent hacking events have not helped matters. If business needs are straightforward and a prospective solution meets them satisfactorily, a cloud-based solution will be easier to implement and cost less compared to an on-premise one. Most mainstream BI solutions are available in both formats, with the online solution costing significantly less in the short term. Businesses can start small and can scale up as they gain more experience with the solution. This can reduce the initial risk and difficulty of deploying a solution.
While the BI solution may have many features to offer, remember that Business Intelligence is the result of all the features working together. Any business planning to acquire a BI solution needs to study its own needs and the feature set of the prospective solution to see if there is a close match.
It is critical to remember that most typical users will not have strong IT backgrounds and will not have the time or inclination to understand complex details about the system. It is these users who will determine the success of the BI solution. Those directing the selection process must keep this in mind.