Warning Signs That You Need Better Business Intelligence

This week’s featured reviewer is Robert Goodman. Robert is one of our BI Experts on IT Central Station and recently posted about Real-time Data Collaboration with QlikView. He is the Director of Business Intelligence & Analytics at Georgetown University and has worked with government organizations, higher education institutions, K-12 school districts, NGO’s and commercial entities. Take a look at Robert’s blog hereContact us if you would like to be one of our guest bloggers. Robert Goodman

Many people ignore the warning signs.  My memory immediately flashes to warning labels on cigarette packaging or the famous 80′s commercial by Partnership for a Drug-free America (This is your brain…this is your brain on drugs).

Unfortunately, warning signs for outdated business intelligence systems may not be that clear…and are much more easily ignored.  Let’s start with a few basic questions:

  1. Do you often go to the ‘data guy’ to get reports or data from your ERP systems?
  2. Do you have to contact multiple people to get the data that you require to run a report?
  3. Is there a central portal where you visit for reporting needs?
  4. Are you able to answer the majority of your business questions without involving the IT department?
  5. Are you stuck with canned reports, or do you have the flexibility to run in-memory BI with tools such as Microsoft PowerPivot, Qlikview, or Tableau?
  6. Are you able to write your own reports, and more importantly, understand the data that is available?
  7. Do you have dashboards setup to govern key business areas?
  8. Are you able to share those dashboards in real-time to further collaborate?
  9. Does your business intelligence system allow you to look across functional areas to compare and contrast?
  10. Is there a process in place to request that additional data be added to the system?

Now that you’ve had a chance to think about the questions above, let’s look at what I would consider a positive and negative response to each question.

No. Question Response
 1 Do you often go to the ‘data guy’ to get reports or data from your ERP systems? Yes No
 2 Do you have to contact multiple people to get the data that you require to run a report? Yes No
 3 Is there a central portal where you visit for reporting needs? Yes No
 4 Are you able to answer the majority of your business questions without involving the IT department? Yes No
 5 Are you stuck with canned reports, or do you have the flexibility to run in-memory BI with tools such as Microsoft PowerPivot, Qlikview, or Tableau? Yes No
 6 Are you able to write your own reports, and more importantly, understand the data that is available? Yes No
 7 Do you have dashboards setup to govern key business areas? Yes No
 8 Are you able to share those dashboards in real-time to further collaborate? Yes No
 9 Does your business intelligence system allow you to look across functional areas to compare and contrast? Yes No
 10 Is there a process in place to request that additional data be added to the system? Yes No
Legend
 Green text Positive response
 Red text Negative response

 

Use these questions as a quick litmus test.  If you answered negatively to 4 or more of the questions above, you should revisit your business intelligence strategy.  If you answered positively to 6 or more of the questions above, you are likely headed in the right direction.  That being said, it is never a bad idea to reassess and evaluate strategies to improve your business intelligence environment.  Considering the constant change and fantastic software tools that are out there – you can always find something that will add to the value of your BI strategy.  Caution:  many of these tools are expensive, so evaluate carefully and find the right fit for your budget and your organization.

If you would like more explanation as to the responses to my questions above, I have provided them below:

Do you often go to the ‘data guy’ to get reports or data from your ERP systems?

I have worked in many organizations to find that only one specific person, or a small group of people, have access to organization-wide data.  If you find yourself constantly going to one person to get the data that you require…or to get ‘that report’ written, then the business intelligence system is failing.  A proper business intelligence system should allow you to get the types of data that you require as an end user.  It may impose appropriate security on the data, but it should allow you to get access to the data that is required to do your job.

Do you have to contact multiple people to get the data that you require to run a report?

If you find yourself contacting one person in Finance to get the finance data – and one person in Human Resources to get the HR data – and one person in Sales to get the sales data, then the business intelligence system is failing.  An appropriate BI solution should bring this data together and make it accessible cross-functionally.

Is there a central portal where you visit for reporting needs?

Provided the cross-functional nature of any business intelligence solution, it is important to have a BI portal in place.  This portal may address key information such as:

  • Report glossary
  • Data definitions
  • Training
  • Change requests
  • Project activity
  • Maintenance schedules

Without such a portal, this information is difficult to cobble together and it leads to confusion as end-users are visiting multiple locations to find this information.  This portal serves as a one-stop shop for business intelligence, reporting, and analytics needs.

Are you able to answer the majority of your business questions without involving the IT department?

This question is two-fold.  The first part is to ensure that the business intelligence system has the data that is required to fulfill your request.  The second part is to ensure that if the business intelligence system does have all of the data that is required for your request, that it is accessible to you.  Security is important, but it can also be over engineered.  In a recent project, I stepped into a BI project where each report was executing a security table with over 3.5 M rows of data.  This killed performance and made the experience so frustrating for end-users that they started to spawn their own shadow systems.  Not good.  Make sure that you have the appropriate security in place for your data, but remember that security for BI projects will likely not be the same as the transactional security that you have setup in your ERP systems.

Are you stuck with canned reports, or do you have the flexibility to run in-memory BI with tools such as Microsoft PowerPivot, Qlikview, or Tableau?

Business users will always find a report that isn’t written…or a permutation of an existing report that is required to fulfill a specific need.  For the canned or standard reports that you make available, try to make them as flexible as possible with report parameters.  These filters allow you to further refine the report for various users.  Once the user community becomes used to the environment, they will quickly outgrow canned reports.  This is where in-memory BI plays a big part.  Allow power-users the flexibility of further analyzing data using in-memory tools.  I’ve seen this done very well with Microsoft PowerPivot, Qlikview, and Tableau among others.  This collaborative analysis may lead to future canned reports or dashboards that will provide benefit to the larger community.  And, if not, it provides the flexibility to perform quick cross-functional analysis without the effort of creating a full report.  In the case of Qlikview, users can collaborate and share dashboard data in real-time.  This is very neat.

Are you able to write your own reports, and more importantly, understand the data that is available?

If your business intelligence environment is setup correctly, power-users should have the ability to write custom reports and save them either to a public or personal directory.  If the BI implementation has been done well, power-users will also understand the metadata which fuels the reports.  In a recent implementation, I’ve seen this done well with IBM Cognos and their Framework Manager.

Do you have dashboards setup to govern key business areas?

Dashboards are always the eye-candy of a BI implementation.  With the proliferation of good dashboard tools, this is an integral part of a modern BI solution and is a key aid in helping to drive key business decisions.

Are you able to share those dashboards in real-time to further collaborate?

Not only are dashboards great to help the c-level suite make key business decisions, but they are also becoming a fantastic way to collaborate and share information.  As mentioned above, some of the more advanced dashboard tools allow you to share dashboard information in real-time.  This could be as simple as selecting a view parameters and sending over a copy of a dashboard that you’ve modified.  In some of the nicer tools, it could mean sharing a session and collaborating on the dashboard in real-time.

Does your business intelligence system allow you to look across functional areas to compare and contrast?

This may seem like a silly question, but it is an important one.  Does your business intelligence system encompass all of your key ERP systems?  If not, you need to reevaluate and ensure that all key business systems are brought into the BI solution.  Once the data from the key business systems is standardized and brought into the BI solution, you can start to join these data together for insightful cross-functional analysis.

Is there a process in place to request that additional data be added to the system?

Through exploration, collaboration, and report writing, you may identify data that has not been loaded into the BI solution.  This could be as simple as a data field or as complex as another transactional system.  Either way, you should ensure that your BI team has a process in place to queue up work items.  The BI solution needs to evolve as business needs are identified.  Personally, I have gained a lot of benefit from using Intuit’s Quickbase software to manage this process through technology.  Quickbase has a nice blend of tools that facilitate collaboration and allow end-users to submit requests without a lot of effort.

As you evaluate your BI solution, also ensure that your ETLs are loading data at the appropriate interval.  I’ve also seen many implementation where the data is so dated that is becomes useless to the end-users and impacts adoption of the platform.  Try to run ETL processes as quickly as possible.  In many implementations that I’ve completed, we’ve set data up to run nightly.  This isn’t always possible given the volume, but fresh data always allows for better adoption of the platform.

Check out IT Central Station’s lineup of the most reviewed business intelligence solutions here.