Companies considering Microsoft's business intelligence (BI) software tools will want to keep some important tips in mind -- tips that experts say will help lower Microsoft BI-related
According to Framingham, Mass.-based analyst firm IDC, Microsoft's BI business -- which consists mainly of sales of Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Excel and some analytical tools -- is currently growing at just over 20% per year, faster than any of the specialty BI vendors, including Business Objects, Cognos, SAS and Oracle Corp.'s Hyperion arm.
A significant number of Microsoft BI migrations and new implementations can be expected this year and next, according to Dan Vesset, vice president of business analytics research at IDC. And smaller companies aren't the only interested parties.
"[Microsoft's BI growth] seems to be initially at the enterprise level," Vesset said. "Obviously, anybody can buy it, but Microsoft has made a very organized effort internally to reorganize the team, and they're seeing quite good traction."
Whether your organization is planning to migrate to Microsoft BI from another vendor or thinking of using Microsoft for an initial BI implementation, there are five key pieces of advice to keep in mind during the planning stages. Some of the advice applies to the business side of an organization, some applies to IT, and much of it applies to non-Microsoft technology as well. But, experts say, all of it should help BI-related initiatives go smoothly.
1. Get IT departments up to speed on BI
BI initiatives tend to be driven by business people like finance and marketing specialists, said Eric Blankenburg, vice president of application and integration solutions at Avanade, a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture that, among other things, helps companies conduct Microsoft BI implementations. As a result, he said, many IT departments simply aren't ready when the call comes from upstairs with word that a BI implementation or upgrade is required.
That's why experts say it's important to hire at least some in-house talent that understands BI -- Microsoft or otherwise -- and, if possible, to train IT workers in BI prior to any implementation. Doing so could help save on consulting fees over the long haul.
"What we have found is that a lot of corporate IT organizations don't really have the capability, currently, of understanding how to apply business intelligence technologies to the kind of business challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed in the organization," Blankenburg said.
2. Explain the technological reasons for BI migration
While the business side is often behind new BI implementations, IT departments are often the drivers behind outright BI migrations. And when IT wants to migrate, it's important for them to make crystal clear to company brass exactly why they're looking for an increased budget.
According to Blankenburg, migrations to Microsoft BI generally fall into four categories. The first occurs when companies are simply dissatisfied with their BI tools and want something different or, perhaps, something that integrates better with Microsoft Excel.
Another reason companies migrate is to consolidate BI tools.
"Because BI is [initially] an end user initiative, you often wind up having different departments with different tools," Blankenburg said. "It's a very costly proposition to support multiple BI platforms."
The third reason companies migrate is to consolidate data warehouses, he said.
The fourth scenario occurs when people want to migrate to Microsoft SQL Server from a competing vendor's platform. But this type of migration seldom happens, Blankenburg explained, because organizations are generally reluctant to undo existing database investments.
Jeff S. Buelt, the director of information technology with Pro Staff, a Minneapolis-based temporary staffing firm, can attest to the fact that organizations are slow to walk away from existing investments.
Pro Staff runs Oracle's flagship database management system to back up Oracle-PeopleSoft's human resources and financials applications. Buelt says he's looked at Microsoft's BI tools and found them appealing, but he doesn't envision his company embracing Microsoft SQL Server anytime soon.
"I need to hedge my bets with Oracle," Buelt said. "I can't take the risk of going down a migration to SQL Server for PeopleSoft, even though it's supported now."
3. Focus on business goals
Any business intelligence initiative should be conducted entirely with business goals in mind. But, experts say, this can be tough, especially when business and IT don't see eye to eye.
Rather than getting into a situation where IT is begging for BI budget money and business execs are barking about the new types of analyses they need, Blankenburg said, it's a good idea for both groups to sit down and map out business goals, then decide how they can be accomplished technologically and economically.
"Focus on business performance and understand what kind of data and analysis you need to move your business forward," he said. "This is a very typical conversation, where the business side and the IT side in this area just don't even know how to talk to each other."
Blankenburg said he encountered such a situation last year while doing consulting work for a client who builds consumer electronic goods. After both sides stopped the arguing and began focusing on how to achieve business goals, he said, "What we wound up with [was] a BI strategic planning engagement that basically put together a three-year-long roadmap for them about what they should be doing right to address their business challenges."
4. Don't overbuy Microsoft BI
You've schooled your IT employees and identified business goals and challenges to address, now it's time to deal with the salespeople. Make sure they don't talk you into buying more than you need.
Companies that choose to go with Microsoft BI will want to thoroughly familiarize themselves with Microsoft's overall BI strategy and products, according to IDC's Vesset.
Basically, he explained, there are three components to Microsoft BI. There is SQL Server, the company's flagship database, which includes data integration services, analysis services and reporting services.
There's ProClarity, a BI company Microsoft acquired last year. ProClarity's technology will make up the foundation of the upcoming Microsoft Performance Point Server (PPS). Vesset said PPS will include such features as scorecards and performance management applications.
The third component of Microsoft BI is Microsoft Office and, specifically, Microsoft Excel. Vesset said Microsoft is aggressively pushing Excel 2007 as a front end to SQL Server, at least for BI purposes.
"People need to recognize that there are multiple components within the Microsoft solution stack," Vesset said. "It's really important to understand specific user needs and what different populations may be looking for."
5. Take an incremental approach
When rolling out a new BI system, don't try to take on too much at once. It's important to start small, Blankenburg said, and focus initially on one specific business need. And remember, success breeds success.
"Try to do something on an incremental basis -- quickly, cost effectively -- then show the results and use that [success] to drive more BI capability into the organization," he said.
One way IT organizations can zero in on which business requirements to address first is by conducting a "bang for your buck" analysis.
"You have to understand how important the goals are in the context of the money that you're going to have to spend to address them," Blankenburg said. "And if there are areas that are very cost effective, you try to implement those things as quickly as possible."