In this excerpt from the book Using Open Source Platforms for Business Intelligence: Avoid Pitfalls and Maximize ROI, author Lyndsay Wise, president and founder of consultancy WiseAnalytics in Toronto further explores the potential advantages of using business intelligence software. Wise shares tips on monitoring business metrics and key performance indicators and how applying a well-designed BI strategy can boost an organization's competitive edge.
In this segment, the second of three from Chapter 8 of Wise's book, readers will also learn why open source business intelligence software is a viable option for some organizations. For example, Wise says businesses that already use other open source technologies could find OSBI tools to be a natural addition. Budget limitations and a desire to quickly launch deployments are other reasons why open source BI tools might be attractive to businesses, she writes.
The role of dashboards has taken center stage for many BI implementations. Ease of use and the ability to visualize data through charts and graphs expands the potential use of BI more broadly across the organization. More and more companies are starting their BI implementations from a vantage point of dashboard delivery instead of from traditional reporting or OLAP cubes, with the goal of taking advantage of self-service models. Consequently, businesses are transitioning from historical analysis towards the monitoring of key performance indicators (KPIs) or metrics to help them monitor performance and to identify the cause and effect of various business processes and activities.
The use of metrics makes business analytics more business-process centric by making sure that business decisions and the way in which they are being applied within the organization are tied to the management of business performance. For instance, sales dashboards are very popular. The general goal of many of these dashboards is to identify how products are performing within various regions and to let sales managers manage their staff. The information collected and measured can be tied into sales incentives or supply chain efficiencies. By using dashboards within mobile settings, line of business (LOB) managers and other employees can take these dashboards on the road with them, making BI transportable.
When people think of acquisitions, many times they think of large enterprises acquiring smaller ones. The BI market is no stranger to this. Solution providers such as SAP and IBM have acquired Business Objects and Cognos as well as many others over the years, shaking up the BI market. However, there are smaller businesses that also acquire other companies. A few years ago I was working with a sub-prime car loan company that offered loans to people with less than amazing credit. Although a smaller business, they were working on acquiring many other similar companies across the United States.
This excerpt is from the book Using Open Source Platforms for Business Intelligence: Avoid Pitfalls and Maximize ROI, by Lyndsay Wise. Published by Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, Burlington, Mass. ISBN 978-0124158115. Copyright 2012, Elsevier BV. For more info, please visit the Elsevier store website.
BI becomes important for acquisitions because information from multiple businesses needs to be handled as one large entity. Consequently, data needs to be consolidated and a system of record put in place to make sure that duplicates or other quality and business rule issues are taken care of.
Competitive edge -- everybody else is doing it!
So, just because many companies are prioritizing BI, does that mean that your organization should too? At this point I will admit that I am biased based on the fact that I am a proponent of BI and have seen its benefits. At the same time, I have also seen mismanaged projects or projects shelved, where organizations have wasted a lot of time and money. But obviously, if you have come this far, BI is a strong priority within your organization. And in essence, it is no longer enough to make decisions without having empirical proof. It is almost as if utilizing BI represents the entry point now but does not necessarily give you the competitive advantage you need. The competitive edge comes from how you apply BI, not from simply adopting a BI infrastructure and set of dashboards or reports.
Why these factors matter
All of these factors surrounding BI deployments lead to the types of features and functions that will be evaluated when selecting the right software. The types of applications and tools your organization adopts will be dependent on what you hope to gain out of the application. Not all companies will require the use of predictive modeling or the ability to provide stakeholders with risk assessments. But many will want to consider a wide variety of capabilities before selecting the solution they will adopt and the type of deployment.
After all, whether selecting OS or not, organizations require the tools to develop and maintain a successful BI environment. And this means understanding why BI is important to today's business. Creating a list of key capabilities and how they relate to what your organization hopes to achieve can help narrow the playing field. What I mean by this is that some products are more mature than others and some provide features out of the box or use connectors to integrate other software within their applications that can be used to offset what doesn't exist natively to the solution. In addition, sometimes OS offerings are not as mature as other applications because they were not developed to meet the needs of paying customers.
The reality is that all of these factors relate directly to OS. Now that both commercial and community versions of OSBI exist, there is more flexibility in deployment and more businesses are evaluating multiple types of offerings side by side and looking at factors beyond the cost (or lack thereof) of software.
Why choose OS
What all of this discussion leads to is how to identify whether OS is the way to go. And the reality is that you might decide that OS isn't right for your organization. But this section will not cover cost. John Kearney, the Director of Administrative Systems at The Commonwealth Medical College (TCMC), said that after being given charge of their BI project he was told, "look for OS" because of the lower costs associated with deployment. In Section 4: Justifying OSBI Projects, we'll look more at how costs factor in to the overall adoption of BI. But for now it is equally important to identify the other factors that make OSBI a viable option.
Already familiar with OS
In many cases, organizations that select OS already have a level of familiarity with its development. TCMC, for instance, was looking for a data warehouse and reporting solution to take ad hoc queries from people and to be able to create a strategic view of information stored in multiple areas within the organization. Part of John's goal was to "give users a feel for what was available in the source systems" that would enable them to "run whatever reports they wanted to run." Aside from many homegrown applications, they also already had Linux, Apache, mySQL, PHP, LAMP server, etc., in-house and were looking to leverage mySQL to build their data marts. Therefore, when it came to OS familiarity, it was already in existence, meaning that skillsets existed and knowledge of where to go for resources was already known. TCMC became active in SourceForge and used the resources to help with their development. Since they knew where to go and which resources to access, development was much simpler.
Want to get off the ground running (as McKnight says)
In some cases, BI installations can take a while. Either the software install and putting it in the hands of those creating solutions or loading data takes weeks or it can take weeks or months to prepare data and develop initial outputs. For example, even a simple sales dashboard or admissions report may be simple in terms of getting the skeleton up and running, but weeks and sometimes months of effort are required to customize to make sure that the analytics represented reflect what is needed to gain valuable insights. One of the things that really resonated with me when speaking with William McKnight was the way in which he determines when he is more likely to use OS and that is when he "wants to get a solution off the ground running." When an organization wants a quick win, the ability to download an application and get it up and running quickly is essential. Even though more tweaks and bug fixes might be required over time, quick time to delivery goes a long way. And in some cases, organizations do not mind taking extra time to tweak a solution if it can be delivered quickly.
It is virtually impossible to discuss OS without considering cost. As mentioned, the costs and lack of costs associated with OS deployments will be discussed in the next section when we evaluate return on investment. While we won't dwell on costs too much here, the reality is that many companies look at OSBI because they do not have unlimited budgets. They may have lofty goals and feel that what they want cannot be achieved by adopting traditional software and hardware due to costs and an infrastructure that might not be able to natively support what they want.
Want to experiment with BI before committing
Many organizations want to try a solution before they commit to dispensing with their budgetary resources. This is one of the reasons so many BI vendors now offer free trials. In many cases, IT developers may feel that they will develop a better understanding of the inner workings of a solution by installing it and using it on their own instead of developing a comparison of multiple offerings. For developers, looking at demos and going through the proof of concept (POC) phase may not achieve the flexibility they want. Downloading software and loading data, developing analytics, and the like can help IT staff understand the inner workings of the solution and see whether specific software is a fit before buying services, support, or even traditional offerings.