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Operational BI process puts better business practices within reach

In a Q&A, consultant Rick Sherman discusses operational business intelligence and offers advice to companies looking to use the approach to manage their operations more effectively.

As organizations increasingly look to use data analytics to help drive their business operations, accelerate decision making and improve their ability to respond to changing conditions, operational business intelligence tools and techniques have become much more mainstream, according to Rick Sherman, founder of consultancy Athena IT Solutions and author of Business Intelligence Guidebook: From Data Integration to Analytics. Operational BI is also becoming a more necessary component of running a business no matter what size a company is, Sherman said in an interview with SearchBusinessAnalytics.

At its most basic level, operational BI enables corporate executives and other end users "to look at how their business processes are running," Sherman said. More advanced deployments can feed BI data directly to operational workers and automate both the analytics process and the business decisions that are based on what it finds. He noted that operational BI doesn't have to be a real-time analytics initiative -- "but it usually is."

In the interview, Sherman also talked about the business benefits and potential problems that can result from operational business intelligence efforts, as well as emerging trends and best practices for successful deployments.

What benefits can companies get from embedding operational intelligence capabilities into their business processes?

Rick ShermanRick Sherman

Rick Sherman: As the operational BI functionality gets more advanced and sophisticated, they can better manage their business. The more sophisticated it gets, the better they're able to prospect for customers, manage and care for their customers, build products, and make their operations more profitable because they can look at various processes and see how well they work. It gives them more details on their business and more examination of what's working. Instead of intuition-based [management], it's information-based.

What kinds of challenges do operational BI initiatives pose that prospective users should know about?

We're moving from static reports to more sophisticated visualization of the data and more data being able to be presented at one time to [help people] make decisions.
Rick Shermanfounder, Athena IT Solutions

Sherman: No matter what kind of operational intelligence you have, you always need to get into more detail. One of the issues you face is how extensive the pre-built operational BI capabilities you have with your enterprise applications [are]. The more extensive, the less extensively you have to fill in the gaps. The challenges you face beyond that [are] how do you handle it, what kind of data are you trying to go after, how is it accessible, what data do you have to integrate it with and how consistent are different data sets with each other. If you have multiple operational BI applications, which companies tend to do, then the issue is how do your business users manage moving between BI applications and how do you get consistent usage from them?

Can you list some best-practice steps that project managers should take to help make operational BI deployments successful?

Sherman: They need to figure out what their business community needs. The best technique for that is storyboarding. Rather than going to a business user and asking them to list the operational reports they want, what you really want to ask them is, "What information do you need in order to make a business decision? What decisions do you need to make?" Look at the sequence of business decisions users need to make, then develop your operational reports based on those needs. The second thing is, based on what they need, what information is there, what can [be used] as-is, what needs to be supplemented or added? The third aspect is what kind of analytics people need in relation to BI. Do they need to see some kind of visualization? That impacts the design. And the last thing is, if you're pulling data from multiple systems, what's the consistency of data across the systems and how do you design for that?

What are some noteworthy trends that are emerging in operational intelligence now?

Sherman: I think the first trend is the movement from operational reports to operational BI. We're moving from static reports to more sophisticated visualization of the data and more data being able to be presented at one time to [help people] make decisions. Another thing is we're getting more self-service-enabled BI -- the ability to present not just pre-built tabular reports, but a selection of data in front of them that [business users] can pick and choose from. The third one is just that we're getting more and more data -- not just [a wider] variety, but a much more comprehensive set of data that a business user can analyze about the processes of their business.

Corlyn Voorhees is an editorial assistant for SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email her at [email protected], and follow us on Twitter: @BizAnalyticsTT.

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