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9 ways to get more value from business intelligence in 2018

Big benefits await those who breathe new life into business intelligence strategies

For far too many organisations, business intelligence (BI) brings to mind simple statistical summaries in stodgy, dated reports.

But beneath BI’s dull surface, keen insights await — especially for those willing to revamp their business intelligence strategy to tackle the kinds of issues forward-thinking organisations are already addressing with modern BI.

Whether you are looking to implement a new BI tool or get more value out of your current BI setup, you will find some promising ideas here, as we recount how companies are using BI to improve customer service, employee productivity, revenue growth, and more.

1. Build real-time BI into your customer-facing services

Customers crave the latest information, especially for what they consider mission-critical systems and processes. So why not inject a little real-time BI into your services? Rackspace, a web hosting company, has done just that.

“To enable businesses with real-time data and analytics, Rackspace has moved away from providing customers with stale data (i.e., data that is more than 24-hours old) whether it is operational or server resource utilisation data," explained Gina Murphy, senior vice president and general manager of application services at Rackspace.

"Over the last few years, the lower cost of processing power and availability of more tools in the market has made it easier for building a business case for real-time analytics and making those business decisions."

Murphy’s comment shows that BI use is no longer limited to internal business users. In fact, BI data on systems is gradually becoming a vital part of the value proposition.

If your IT unit has been looking for a way to add more value to the business, this Rackspace development suggests one approach. Build BI into customer-facing reports and products.

2. Bring unstructured data on board

For years, unstructured data was a lost cause. There was just no efficient way to go through this information, especially when structured customer and financial data was easy to use. Aflac, the insurance firm, has started a new program to extract this data.

“Aflac acquired the Hadoop Appliance within our transformation's area," commented Julia Davis, senior vice president and CIO of Aflac. "We want to utilise Hadoop because it provides the BI capabilities to process and handle unstructured data.

"This technology is new for Aflac and provides the ability to cross-reference many data points."

3. Improve employee performance through BI

As a manager, it can often be difficult to decide which of your direct reports needs the most prompt help. Business intelligence tools can point you in the right direction, as Clearlink, a digital marketing and services firm, has found.

“At Clearlink, we have hundreds of sales agents handling incoming calls to purchase various home services," said Landon Starr, vice president of data science at Clearlink. "As a first-line manager or coach, knowing which agents might need help when everyone might need help, is a real challenge.

"A simple real-time report that extracts the type of call, the person taking the call, and the predicted value of that call simplifies that problem for a coach."

Better employee performance through BI also applies to the warehouse industry.

“We have recently developed an order selector ranking report where we bring data from the warehouse management system and time clock to rank employees daily based on their performance," added Joe Beydoun, director of SCM and BI strategy at Lipari Foods.

"This data has helped management put all these factors together and reward top performers without the hassle of building the reports. We also plan to introduce gamification for the warehouse staff."

This approach shows that business intelligence can be a proactive tool, rather than a historical record of past performance.

4. Cut time wasted on data grunt-work

At any large organisation, the end of a quarter or month is marked by analysts grinding through Excel files. It is such a common practice that you may not think it is a problem.

And the problem may be on the data collection and hygiene end. Thankfully, BI tools are arising to help with that. No more combing through Amazon.com for the publicly available data you need.

“We are tracking customer and product profitability in a Sisense analytics cube that is updated daily right now," explained Mark Hopkins, CIO of Skullcandy. "In the past, this report was only available on a monthly basis because it took multiple hours to assemble the data and validate it.

"Now, that prep time has been eliminated, and we can quickly track profitability and identify positive or negative trends in real time versus on a monthly basis."

5. Improve customer service

In the online world, an angry customer does not stay quiet for long, a problem that can compound as it is amplified through social media.

If customer dissatisfaction can be detected early through business intelligence, the problem can be addressed before it spreads widely.

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“We are using analytics to help determine benefits of investing in product improvements by looking at our warranty claims,” Skullcandy’s Hopkins said. “We are analysing the text descriptions of the problems to highlight problems our customers are reporting, and determine the frequency of occurrence.

"Further, we are also mining the data in reviews to discover what our consumers like about our products, and what they want us to improve, and how we compare with our competitors."

When addressing service issues like warranty claims, be sure to consult with finance for cost-benefit analysis. Taking a short-term loss to make a customer happy may result in more orders in the future.

IT can add value to these discussions by evaluating data quality and building easy-to-use BI tools for end users, especially those that may incorporate sentiment analysis of social media trends around your brand.

6. Predict new revenue streams

Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross became a quick best-seller among those interested in technology sales. Ross focuses on what salespeople and their managers can do to improve revenue predictability.

IT can take a tip here and provide BI tools to aid in sales decisions such as which clients should be taken on.

"We developed a revenue prediction calculator for FanHero, a company that creates mobile apps for celebrities and influencers," said Humberto Farias, CEO of Concepta. "The calculator addresses one of the company’s main challenges: the ability to predict how many users and how much net worth a celebrity could bring to the company.

"No individual could process all the necessary data to have a good estimation of how much revenue each customer would produce.

"The data sources include of social media statistics (likes, followers, growth rate), vertical growth rates, fixed and variable infrastructure costs and historical data of launched apps."

The application also includes support for “what if” analysis. If a prospect achieved a higher social media following, they might be a higher priority for the company. Farias said the application is in the “alpha stage,” so it is too early to determine its impact.

7. Automate budgeting and forecasting

In financial management, moving away from spreadsheets to specialised tools can make a major difference.

“We were constantly using our rear-view mirror to make decisions about the future of the company,” said Christy Hrencher, director of marketing at Nextep. To solve this issue, Nextep turned to Adaptive Insights, a planning and budgeting tool.

“Adaptive gave us the ability to involve the entire leadership team in the budgeting process. We now had a tool that gave everyone the ability to see where they stand against goals in real time.

"We’re no longer using spreadsheets, we’ve been able to automate our budgeting and forecasting process, and the data is available at any time."

8. Embed BI into other platforms

Historically, BI tools required specialised expertise and applications. As a result, IT departments have traditionally owned responsibility for BI.

That may be starting to change not only with self-service BI, but with the ability to embed BI directly into other platforms, as Clearlink’s use of Sisense shows.

"Because it is embeddable, we can build any number of web applications, and we can use this BI framework and speed of report development to plug widgets into any of our home-grown applications,” Starr said.

With more BI work offloaded to lines of business, IT can add value by focusing on predictive analytics, which currently has few proven applications outside of sales and marketing.

Alternatively, IT units may seek an internal consulting role where they help other business units find opportunities to use BI or embed BI capabilities more widely.

9. Shift the emphasis to analysis

In 2018, many professionals still have to spend a great deal of time on collecting data.

For every hour spent on data collection, professionals have less capacity to extract insights. In the finance department, this data collection vs. analysis problem is particularly acute since finance must work under tight deadlines.

To address this issue, Rackspace management decided to help its finance team with better business intelligence.

“BI has created an environment that contains the data that a finance team needs with all of the necessary rules and calculations; it would tie back to any operational reports that generated out of general ledger," explained Murphy.

"This has enabled finance users to spend more than 90 percent of the time on analyzing data versus collecting it."

[Reporting by Bruce Harpham, CIO]