Get smart about BI in tight times

Get smart about BI in tight times

Interest in business intelligence (BI) and analytics continues to build, as solutions become increasingly powerful, broader in application and easier to access for employees throughout the firm.

Recent interest has been driven by the need for companies to improve efficiencies in difficult economic times, as well as by a range of new offerings that seek to broaden the appeal of this technology. Offerings specifically targeting smaller businesses are becoming more popular, including solutions from SaaS and the cloud.

Meanwhile, many small businesses continue to rely on spreadsheet-driven solutions, which are, themselves, growing in sophistication. For resellers interested in entering this territory, it is important to gain a complete understanding of customers’ analytic requirements, and match them to affordable and available products. This can be difficult, but BI is of particular value in economic conditions where the emphasis is firmly on developing business efficiency.

Many small businesses rely on spreadsheets for business intelligence, and Microsoft Office is the starting point for BI. “Small businesses need to have self service ability for BI,” says Microsoft SMB sales and marketing manager Jared Pedersen. “They don’t have the money and IT capability to have analysts freely available. At Microsoft, we look to focus on self service analytics for small businesses. This means obtaining better insights more quickly, not having to wait to get reports provided by someone else.”

There are three basic types of business intelligence users:

• Strategic business users, such as the CEO or executive, who do not generate or manipulate data, but needs to view information via a dashboard or scorecard to make strategic decisions;

• Operational users such as a sales manager who runs canned reports on a day-to-day basis, and needs to refresh reports, but not to create them;

• Tactical business users, such as analysts, finance experts, marketing people and others who look at a lot of customer information and need ad hoc querying capability. They take a business question and discover the answers through analysis of data.

“Microsoft takes these three types of users into account in the design of its Office Suite BI capabilities,” says Pederson. “There are significant enhancements to BI capabilities in Office 2010, which has just been released. One of the areas of interest is a range of new functionality for use of pivot tables in Excel.”

For Microsoft, there are three key trends in this area:

Data proliferation as the amount of digitally available data explodes. Data does not necessarily provide insight, but makes it possible;

• Accessibility of data, and universal availability of the internet, with mobile devices that permit you to take information with you and access it from different sites;

• Growing importance of informed decision-making. In a time of uncertainty, decision based on “gut” reactions may need closer evaluation.

Cloud and SaaS provision are upcoming trends, and Microsoft is investing heavily in exploring this area. For BI information sharing and display, Sharepoint as a Service is growing as a solution.

“Uptake of BI capabilities in New Zealand has been good and we are reaching out to the community with our road warriors marketing campaign,” says Pedersen. “Resellers need to know that if they are selling Office, they are selling BI capability. They may not be aware of this capability. To aid in sales of Office-based BI, resellers can get online training, and the road warrior programme will help to build awareness. Microsoft Office customers need to harness what they have already paid for.”

SAP has been focused on the BI sector since its acquisition of BusinessObjects just over two years ago. “Before that, we were principally an ERP company with data warehouse and BI tools,” says regional vice president Simon Dale. “We saw increasing demand for BI and analytics, and acquired BusinessObjects, then the largest independent BI provider, to accelerate our position in this space. We quickly found a large overlap in the customer bases. One of the key benefits of the acquisition was to bring the product suites closer together to provide a more integrated solution.

SAP has introduced a cloud-based BI product called BI On-Demand that aims to make BI available and more accessible to businesses of any size or complexity, particularly focusing on the SME area. This lets companies get up to speed quickly without the need to install a complex product.

“On-Demand now offers a wide range of capabilities, including integration with on-premises data warehouses,” says Dale. “We have standard reporting plus query and analysis tools. One of our most important tools is Explorer, which provides a completely free format near-natural-language querying mechanism, with navigation from there. This allows people to explore their information in real time, to get familiar with the data and the types of questions they can get answered. If they want the answer in a regular basis, they can easily move the query to regular tools, with proper reports and formatting.”

One area that is seeing development in the BI sector is the capability to analyse unstructured data, from email to content from social networking sites. SAP is working to improve capabilities in this area.

“For the Australia and New Zealand market, we see an increase in the understanding of BI as well as in the need to make better use of business information,” says Dale. “Once people have processes under control, they need to understand the operation of their business to improve it. Analysis is essential to improving service levels and efficiencies. This means not just reporting, but analysis of the data. People want answers quickly, and On Demand BI gets information to people more quickly.”

For resellers, it is important to move customers beyond looking at BI as just a matter of reporting data. “Education is needed to take it to the next level, from an operational view to a business planning and strategy use,” says Dale. “In this area of BI, we are actively recruiting resellers. Performance management is a different domain; resellers are often not accustomed to it and need to develop those skills.”

IBM’s offering in the BI area is its Cognos product line. “New Zealand continues to be a strong market for IBM Business Analytics across all size organisation in both public and private sectors,” says software group manager Stephen Elliott. “We have developed Cognos Express specifically for the small to medium size market. It delivers the essential reporting, analysis, dashboard, scorecard, planning, budgeting and forecasting capabilities that midsize companies need, at a price they can afford. Everything is included in a pre-configured solution that is easy to install, easy to use and easy to buy. “

For resellers, one area that can create a problem is the lack of available skilled people to help implement Business Analytics offerings. “Developing and delivering successful Business Analytics projects requires business as well as technical skills,” says Elliott. ”In many service delivery organisations, someone with programming skills is assigned to deliver a Business Analytics solution without the having the required business expertise. This often results in project delays or poor implementation.”

As complexity increases, IBM is seeing a trend towards organisations seeking additional help in implementing BI solutions. “The ability to provide implementation services to compliment the software offerings is an important decision criteria for most organisations when they are evaluating business analytics solutions,” says Elliott.

Infor’s BI solution is the Infor Performance Management Suite, which provides a wide range of standard BI features, including ad-hoc query and analysis, multidimensional analysis, dashboard, scorecards, financial performance management and the like. “In the past 12 months, interest is much stronger in acquisition of a BI solution in conjunction with an ERP package,” says channel manager, Ruth Thomson. ”Companies are now interested in implementing BI from the start, rather than adding it at a later date.”

Part of the reason for early implementation of BI is the global economic crisis. As businesses focus on efficiency, using BI tools becomes an important part of the solution. It can be particularly important in areas such as price forecasting.

“An important trend is toward providing role-based information in dashboards and alerts for different users,” says Thomson. “The technology is also getting more proactive than reactive, with more real time analysis and capability to predict trends for future action. The economic downturn has forced companies to be more introspective in finding where businesses are performing and where can be made more efficient.”

BI is becoming easier to use, and is being applied to an increasingly wide range of problems, moving out of the more traditional domains of sales and finance into performance on the factory floor.

“For resellers, the key to BI sales today is understanding the needs of the organisation as a whole,” says Thomson. “ Resellers need adequate preparation and need to get both the IT department and the business departments on board. The conversation is no longer just with IT and financial analysts. BI is now being used throughout the organisation.”

SAS is a leader in Business Analytics market, and focuses upon this area. It works with a range of implementation specialists in New Zealand. Its chief customers are in government, banking, utilities, insurance and similar large businesses with strong analytic requirements.

“One important factor is that, in analytics, there is no difference between the needs of smaller organisations and those of larger organisations,” says country manger Geoff Beynon. “We have nothing specifically targeted at the SME level, but our products are designed to scale as an organisation scales.”

One important issue is the need to move beyond spreadsheets for BI. “There is no problem in using a spreadsheet as an interface to view and chart data, but there can be problems in relying upon Excel to manage the business, and perform calculations and analysis. Even small organisations may be complex. A key differentiator for SAS is providing business analytics that are forward looking rather than backward looking. With a spreadsheet, it is a struggle to do this type of analysis, and establishing a single version of the truth can also be problematic.

For SAS, the year 2009 saw substantial growth in new licence revenues despite a downturn for companies in other IT areas. This is because businesses continue to look to analytics to help them achieve greater efficiency, which becomes even more important in a recession.

For resellers, Beynon notes that SAS business partners are most successful if they have a real core capability in pure play analytics that they can deploy against business problems, as well as a good understanding of quality data.

Oracle has a major BI launch scheduled for release in early July. This is Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition 11g (OBIEE). Peter Hanley, managing director of Indigo, an Oracle business partner says of the new offering, “OBIEE 11g represents a more complete Business Intelligence solution, offering further and closer integration between BI and Financial Management components such as Planning and Budgeting. It will also feature the ability to handle larger, more complex data sets.”

According to Hanley, Oracle BI is experiencing solid growth in New Zealand, with a large and growing customer base. “General trends are toward continued growth - particularly for packaged analytics; a continued customer requirement for reduced risk, and easier implantation; and a continuation of standardisation and alignment around the major vendors.”

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