Managing multiple BI tools doesn't have to be so hard

A multi-tool business intelligence environment may be the norm, but it’s not the ideal. Learn steps you can take to reduce the complexity and increase the effectiveness of your BI installation.

Many business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing efforts begin as technology-driven initiatives. The IT department buys hardware and software to build a BI system with little to no business involvement. Over time, these IT driven projects accumulate multiple tool sets for data acquisition, end user reporting and other facets of the BI and data warehousing process.

Independently from IT, business units undertake their own BI initiatives, buying more software. In addition, the organization has probably implemented an enterprise resource planning system that came with its own set of BI tools.

The end result of all of these factors is a multi-tool environment that often is difficult and costly to maintain. Many organizations are now looking for ways to simplify and better manage such installations. To achieve that, there are two fundamental approaches: Reduce the number of BI tools to a more manageable level or live with the multi-tool environment but manage it better. Those options are not mutually exclusive, however, and an organization can do both by taking concrete long-term and short-term actions.

In the long term, establish or revalidate your approach to BI governance—how your organization manages its business intelligence program. Then execute a project to rationalize the existing portfolio of BI tools.

Effective governance ensures proper BI alignment

The goal of BI governance is to set and maintain the direction of a BI program from multiple perspectives. From a business perspective, BI governance ensures that BI projects align with business initiatives and with each other. From a technical perspective, it guides technical architecture, data governance and ongoing BI operations management. Strong BI governance ensures that the introduction of BI tools follows a systematic, business-driven process. It also lays the foundation for evaluating and then rationalizing a multi-tool environment.

The next step is to rationalize—or stated more directly, to reduce the number of different BI tools being used in your organization. A project management methodology, such as the BI Pathway model we use at DecisionPath Consulting, can serve as a guide to help you plan and execute a business-driven project to do the following:

  • Update and refine your BI strategy by assessing business requirements and BI tool capabilities.
  • Analyze your existing BI environment to determine how well it is meeting strategic information needs.
  • Develop a rationalization plan based on the gaps between your updated strategy and the effectiveness of your BI environment, with recommendations to continue using each BI tool as is or to repurpose or retire the tool.

In the short term, while the two projects described above are under way, the following tips can help you better manage a multi-tool environment. The overarching goal is to simplify the environment while retaining existing functionality, with little to no impact on business users.

Migrate reports and BI functionality to the “best” tools

In an organization with multiple BI tools, the chances are high that the same report is being produced within different tools. In addition, one BI tool may include custom-developed BI applications or functionality that another tool supports out of the box. In these cases, consolidate on the “best” tool. That choice, of course, is often subjective. But useful guidelines are to move reports to the tools with the larger user bases and to move custom functionality to products that provide it as a standard feature. Such actions require some planning but will simplify the BI environment over time.

Keep your reporting processes current

Since business information needs evolve, the reports that were important six months ago may not be important now. Determine which reports are used the least and shut them down. Eliminating rarely used reports will make the overall BI environment easier to manage. The challenge is to determine which reports are seeing the least amount of use. Some BI tools provide usage metrics; lacking such data, a somewhat risky approach is to turn off reports and see who complains.

Upgrade to new versions of your BI software

Once a BI tool is installed and working, the inclination is to leave it alone. However, you might be missing out on new and improved functionality that makes the BI environment easier to manage. You also might be missing out on bug fixes. Keep your BI tools on the latest stable software versions (wait for bugs to shake out), thus maximizing tool functionality and reducing the number and complexity of workarounds you have to develop and maintain.

Consolidate your BI infrastructure

If your BI tools run on multiple server platforms, try to consolidate them onto the same one. Doing so will simplify software administration and maintenance. One note of caution: A thorough analysis should be conducted to ensure that the chosen servers have enough performance and capacity to handle multiple BI tools.

By looking at your BI environment from a strategic perspective, linking it to business outcomes and undertaking some short-term steps while you work to reduce the number of different products being used in your organization, your BI systems will become less complex and easier to manage.

About the Author
Nancy Williams, vice president at DecisionPath Consulting, has more than 25 years of experience as a BI and data warehousing educator, practitioner and speaker. She also is co-author of  The Profit Impact of Business Intelligence. She can be reached at [email protected]

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