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Business intelligence demands an optimal services provider

Selecting a business intelligence (BI) services provider that understands your business is key to a successful operational BI deployment.

As if selecting a business intelligence (BI) vendor in this volatile market isn't hard enough, choosing a services provider or systems integrator to actually implement BI just got a lot more complicated too, according to a recent report.

With operational BI making its way deeper into organizations, the role of BI services providers is becoming correspondingly more important and difficult, according to Tim Sheedy, senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research and author of the report. Service providers need more than just the technical expertise they once did; they also need an understanding of each customer's business goals.

It's a task made still more difficult by the BI market's relative immaturity compared with other software markets, Sheedy said.

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"If you look at the first two generations [of BI], they were pretty simple implementations. There wasn't a huge amount of impact on operational systems, not a huge amount of integration work to be done," he said. Now, companies are moving beyond simple BI-related reporting and analytics and embedding BI capabilities directly within operational systems.

Operational BI is indeed growing in popularity. A recent Ventana Research study found that 68% of 314 organizations polled have implemented operational BI on some level, with nearly two-thirds judging the ability to extend BI capabilities to operational-level workers "very important."

Balancing real-time data needs

What makes implementing BI at an operational level so difficult is knowing when and where real-time information is needed, and when and where it isn't, Sheedy said. Front-line workers may need real-time information to handle live client calls, for example, while business analysts who review weekly reports may not. Only services providers that intimately understand their clients' business needs are in a position to make that call.

"You are looking for someone who understands your business and can understand that if you automate some of the decisions at this stage in the buying process or [that stage of] the supply chain process, that can make a big impact on your business," Sheedy said.

To determine whether a services provider truly understands the business, Sheedy recommends that companies look for vendors with extensive experience in their particular markets. Companies should ask potential services providers for relevant case-studies of past BI implementations and seek out satisfied customers -- and dissatisfied ones, if possible -- with similar lines of business in order to get a feel for what the implementation process was like.

It is also important to pick a BI services provider with a firm grasp of the volatile BI market, Sheedy said, looking for those with teams dedicated to each of the top BI vendors, including Business Objects and Cognos. With the BI market still sorting itself out after a wave of consolidations, companies must rely on their services provider to react to unexpected developments. Those that have vendor-specific staff teams, he said, are in a better position to adapt to market changes.

Practice what you preach

Companies should examine the types of BI that potential service providers use internally and be wary of those vendors that haven't deployed BI themselves, Sheedy said. It is reasonable to question a vendor's ability to implement BI at an outside organization if it doesn't value the benefits of BI enough to use it itself.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, companies must be sure that potential services providers can successfully turn their BI vision into reality, he said. Because BI is still a relatively young industry, there is no single, proven implementation methodology or set of best practices as in other software markets. As it stands, BI implementation methodologies vary from vendor to vendor, with some service providers lacking implementation methodologies altogether, he said. It is important to pick a BI services provider that can articulate its implementation methodology clearly and is not shy about voicing its opinion.

"You're generally going to get a better solution from an organization that has a bit of a path that they'd like to take you on -- [that] actively suggests and recommends solutions," Sheedy said. "You want someone who's going to introduce best practices into the organization."

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