How to Decide which Business Intelligence Tools you Need

In today’s digital marketplace, business intelligence, or BI, has become a key area of concern for any company that wants to get ahead of the game. Basically, BI is the use of certain types of computer software to pinpoint, extract, and analyze information in any number of useful ways.

Business intelligence reporting tools provide a way to compile your BI data and present it to the people who need to know, in a way they can easily understand. It's getting the right information to the right people, at the right time.

Tool types: Platforms and the companies that make them

There are a number of BI reporting tools on the market, with different capabilities, platform support, and other variables. Businesses can invest in custom-built reporting tools that deliver exactly what they need, or commercial reporting tools that are automatically capable of integrating with existing systems.

Some of the major players in BI reporting tools include:

  • Oracle
  • MicroStrategy
  • IBM Cognos
  • Microsoft Dynamics GP
  • Actuate
  • Jaspersoft
  • Pentaho

The many functions of reporting tools

While business intelligence as a whole can deliver predictive data, the purpose of reporting tools is to gather descriptive information—data that already exists. These tools provide an overall picture of where you've been, to help you figure out where to go.

Functionality for reporting tools includes:

  • Data source connections. To gather and analyze data, the reporting tools need access. You’ll need the capability to connect to the relationship database and the OLAP (online analytical processing) data source.
  • Scheduling and distribution. After generating reports, you’ll need to be able to send them out. Scheduling and distribution capabilities in a reporting tool should allow for automation of these functions—so, for example, you're able to send a sales report to all senior executives every Monday morning.
  • Security. Since most reports are either sent via email or published through a browser, security is an essential feature for BI reporting tools. The major vendors feature security customization to ensure that users see only what they're supposed to see.
  • Customization. This feature can save a lot of time by allowing you to build report generation that's automatically formatted to corporate standards.
  • Exporting. Microsoft Excel is still the standard data manipulation platform for most businesses. It's generally helpful for a reporting tool to be able to produce reports in Excel, PDF, and Flat File formats, so all your bases are covered.

Common report formats

The word “report” is fairly generic. There are a lot of things that can be considered a report, from a 200-page corporate analysis study to you telling a friend about the movie you saw last night. So, what does a reporting tool consider a “report”?

Most reporting tools can generate organized data in some or all of these formats:

  • Lists. These are simple, straightforward collections of information. Longer lists can be grouped, and numeric lists can be totaled, averaged, or otherwise summarized.
  • Charts. Most reporting tools can generate pie charts, line and bar charts, and more. These are often the better choice for presenting numeric data.
  • Matrix. This two-dimensional type of report, also called cross-tabulation or crosstabs, combines data sets to show things like hits per web page or sales per quarter.
  • Documents and letters. Reporting tools are capable of creating documents from simple text-based form letters to complex presentations, complete with tables, charts, and even graphics. These are ideal for use in annual company reports.

How do you share your data?

Chances are, you're already using some form of a reporting tool in your business. Whether it’s a simple email system or detailed reports that are uploaded to a centralized platform, every company has a way to send crucial information.

If your business relies on complex reports that combine data from many different sources, and requires different types of output depending on the recipients, you may benefit from upgrading your BI reporting tools. There are many customizable solutions that make it easy to compile and send information.

Best of all, BI reporting tools help to automate your data delivery processes—and who wouldn't want to do less work?