Mining a company’s business intelligence (BI) has long been viewed with great potential to spin raw data into business gold to boost profits and success. That’s truer than ever, with polls by Gartner, Merrill Lynch and other analysts revealing that adding BI capabilities tops CIOs’ priority list in 2007.
Despite the interest, many organizations cringe at the prospect of persuading their associates to actually adopt BI systems, which suffer from a reputation for difficulty of use, slow response times and other pain that can lead to user apathy.
To gain value from these systems, recent studies and white papers suggest companies mature their BI initiatives by embracing user-friendly, enterprise-wide approaches that can drive greater business successes and ultimately spur increased adoption.
Why the lack of interest in use of BI tools by rank-and-file employees? Roughly 80 percent of companies remain stuck in “adolescent” or earlier phases of BI, according TDWI Research, an independent industry watcher that studies data warehousing. At these early stages, BI’s business value is often limited to the insight gleaned about sales and other trends from basic reports. It often fails to take advantage of real-time information that, for example, might reveal when to replenish shelves for greater efficiency and sales.
The lack of maturity encourages user disinterest. Numerous analyst studies report that only about 20 percent of business users given access to BI tools use them regularly. According to industry observers, that’s often because most BI systems or set ups remain:
- Too technical for casual business users. Users must typically rely on IT staff to code changes to achieve goals.
- Painfully slow and unpredictable. Searches or queries and results can average 15 to 80 seconds because databases are built for transactional rather than analytical processes.
- Non-integrated, technical implementations, propelled from the bottom of the organization up without a cohesive strategy. Thus, many companies grapple with a jumble of disconnected BI warehouses and data mining tools and numerous software dashboards to make sense of the information.
Many companies find that their casual business users quickly grow weary and return to their more comfortable departmental spread sheets and data marts. Unfortunately, the information they need often isn’t current, synchronized with data held across the company or available to other departments. These so-called spread marts also create potential compliance problems and provide conflicting views of data that undermine accurate decision making.
Passage into adulthood
How does a company outgrow the pain that creates user apathy? It matures by simplifying application use and improving related benefits gained from using BI. Adopting seven strategies can help immensely, analysts say.
First, companies should deliver an architecture that lets users access consolidated data stored across the company. Organizations should now also begin to define business goals and related metrics – and rely on dashboards to measure related progress toward, for example, sales or inventory goals at every level of the organization, says TDWI Research.
Once this is done, the researchers point out the importance of incorporating real or near real-time information. It allows companies to predict future events and customer behavior. For example, a retailer can know immediately when a particular item sells out to better manage its inventory, meet customer demand and enhance sales.
Later, BI can become a tool that scores or evaluates events as they occur, then automates related business decisions. For instance, an e-commerce site might apply predictive models to offer personalized shopping, while a credit card company might “score” every transaction to screen for fraudulent activity and alert customers. Thus, BI begins to grow beyond simply gaining understanding to delivering information that can further a company’s success.
The adoption of easier-to-use BI applications can then drive user adoption in the adult phases. Gartner, TDWI Research and others note that only about one in five users now take advantage of existing BI tools. Applications must be simple enough to use without the help of IT “power users.”
To further accelerate maturity, TDWI Research advises users to provide easy access to trustworthy data. Companies benefit from adding master data management to establish a “single version of the truth” – that is, ensure data about customers, products and employees held in all repositories and with outside partners – stays current. It should remain in synch, reliable and easily accessed.
Implementing blended applications can also help. Eventually, an organization should embed reports, analysis and monitoring capabilities directly into core business applications to encourage use and adoption. The ability to perform all tasks needed to analyze and execute a campaign within a single application (that connects to BI, CRM and external services) drives convenience and adoption.
Industry watchers say organizations should also focus less on available data, and more on business processes the data supports, such as sales procurement, financial or HR. Savvy companies create process councils that include infrastructure and data experts. Instead of asking “what data do we need,” process teams ask, “what are we trying to accomplish.”
Supporting a mature strategy
SAP NetWeaver Business Intelligence 7.0 addresses the seven steps by working to mature BI initiatives by letting every business user access data, for example, using Microsoft Office applications, such as Outlook or Excel spreadsheets. The application integrates with SAP ERP and non-SAP systems alike to allow users to access, slice, dice and manipulate that information in real time within the spread sheet itself, with only minimal training. Thus, a sales manager can easily see statistics, for example, by country or region, then drill down within the spread sheet to see and interact with more granular data, which updates in real time – without calling IT.
Users can use Excel formulas and macros without defining radio buttons and other controls. They can manipulate metrics when forecasting for future, and use a single interface to manage those tasks and related analysis. Previously, those efforts required two interfaces. The added ability for users to now define their own filters allows easy creation of custom queries in an appealing, intuitive way – also without extra coding or technical expertise.
SAP NetWeaver Business Intelligence further enhances the user experience by significantly improving query response times and predictability with SAP NetWeaver Business Intelligence Accelerator. The separate component retrieves BI information often within one second, and routinely within three seconds.
It also lets users easily leverage their master data by tapping SAP NetWeaver Master Data Management to retrieve a single and trustworthy version of data.
Independent of the BI strategy or software a company chooses, it should expect a long-term endeavor – but one if done right, that can contribute directly to the success of each company.