Companies are facing pressure on several fronts. There is an economic slowdown that is demanding companies to become ever more efficient and extract more from their investments. The competitive environment has become fiercer with new competitors emerging in Asia and other parts of the world and it has become essential for companies to extract every bit of competitive advantage if they are to survive and grow. In such an environment, Business Intelligence tools become essential differentiators.
Companies that have made large investments in ERP and CRM software are looking to unlock the data already stored in their databases to get more ROI from these investments.
However, not all BI solutions are built equal, and there are major differences between vendors as well. Making the right choice could mean the difference between a successful implementation or wasted time, opportunity and money.
Any BI solution vendor must meet certain essential criteria. These can easily be listed as:
- Technology needs (comprehensive platform, analysis capabilities)
- Corporate capability (company strength and stability, global reach and presence)
- Customer alignment (organizational depth and commitment to customers)
Each of these parameters has to be maximized in balance with each other for you to be sure that you are selecting the right vendor. The requirement is to ensure the largest possible circle in the figure above. If all the capabilities are in balance, the figure will be a circle and that is important. A vendor may have great values on every measurement but if it lacks company strength and stability, you may not want to go with it.
So much for the vendor, we now shift the focus to the BI Solution. While there could be many issues to focus on while considering the software, we have identified five major subheads.
Five major factors to consider in BI software
- Platform. In all probability, your company could be using a number of different hardware / software combinations. In the future as well, your choice of specialist applications could dictate a different choice of platform to be used. Therefore, the BI solution you select must be able to support different platforms.
- Applications. You could be running a number of different applications and some of them would be producing their own output and data. In addition, there could be large and complex applications like ERP or CRM applications running in your company. Each of these applications will have to be studied on a case by case basis to determine the ease (or difficulty) of integrating its data with the BI solution you are planning to shortlist. In some cases, you might even have to change your applications or write bridging code to be able to integrate the solution with the application. Do remember that the lesser number of ad hoc patches you use, the more stable your final solution will be.
- Data management. Your organization could have data in several different databases. These could be a mix of RDBMS as well as OLAP (on-line analytical processing) data. In case you have a number of legacy systems, these would add to the complexity as well. The solution you select must be able to handle data from all these sources, combine them after purification and store them in a data mart that it will then access for its queries. In addition to this, you may have some proprietary database extensions, the solution must cater to these as well.
- Globalization. In case your organization has offices over several countries, the BI solution you choose must be capable of being deployed in several different languages and allow users to select from any of the languages it is capable of. Even if you do not have a presence in different countries today, you could need the solution tomorrow. Also with supply chains becoming global, it is quite possible that some of your suppliers could be in, say, China, in which case you may want to share some performance related data with them. At least consider having some of the major languages supported by your software.
- Scalability. As your business grows, your needs will invariably grow as well. The solution must be able to handle a large number of users and larger datasets without requiring frequent addition of hardware. An important issue in today’s environment is a move to cloud computing. Even if you haven’t already done so, I anticipate that in the next two to three years, some part of your IT infrastructure would be cloud based. Organizations generally start with storage and then move their applications and operations to the cloud as they gain more confidence. Since the move is nearly inevitable, you must anticipate this now. Check with your vendor and clarify issues about portability and what support would be forthcoming. You could even consider deploying your solution in the Internet Cloud to begin with. Doing this frees you entirely from any kind of upfront hardware investment and gives you nearly unlimited scalability.
Is there a possibility that you might be considering acquiring a company? In that case, it is important that you understand the data and applications of the target company and see how the BI solution you are considering can fit with the likely acquisition. You may need to make the selected vendor sign a non-disclosure agreement and then give them relevant details of the company you are acquiring.
Your solution must ensure that authorized people have access to data as per your company policy. Security should be fine grained and allow sensitive information to be controlled in such a way that different users see different versions of the same report with varying levels of detail based on their authorization. Editing profiles of various users to alter their security clearances should be easily accomplished. The entire security overlay should be centrally controllable by the administrator.
It is also important to audit usage of the BI solution and the solution should have audit built in from the very start rather than being added as an afterthought.
To conclude, implementing a BI solution is an important initiative in any organization. While considerable organizational support is required in its implementation, it is equally important to insure that the software and the vendor is selected very carefully. The implementation is complex and can pose a major challenge if legacy software is involved as well, therefore the experience level of your solutions provider is very important.
The selected vendor must have a proven track record and should have several successful implementations to his credit. The software must meet your requirements fully and be capable of future extensions and development. Ensure that you look at cloud computing needs and a possible shift to cloud based operations in the near future. Work this into your contract so that you are not forced to re-negotiate when the move does take place.
Security and audit capabilities must be native to the software and not be an afterthought. You should be able to control rights of various users centrally and see who has been accessing what reports. Not only does this help security, it also helps in finding out which of your executives are not getting the best out of the initiative and helping them along.