Understanding Business Intelligence and Your Bottom Line
The term “Business Intelligence” and its acronym “BI” are so pervasive in today’s data-intensive lexicon that it’s a challenge to know just what to make of it. If you add in all the new trendy terminology such as business process management (BPM), data mining, data warehousing, business process automation, decision support systems, query and reporting systems, enterprise performance management, executive information systems (EIS), business activity monitoring (BAM), modeling and visualization, and so forth, your head can start spinning.
Here is a workable definition of BI that was provided in a Technology Evaluation report from a Jan. 10, 2005, Technology Evaluation Centers article by Mukhles Zaman titled, “Business Intelligence: Its Ins and Outs”: “BI is neither a product nor a system. It is an umbrella term that combines architectures, applications and databases. It enables the real-time, interactive access, analysis and manipulation of information, which provides the business community with easy access to business data.
Given this modest objective, SMB companies must filter through the hype emanating from many BI application vendors who claim that they should invest in higher-priced, industrial-strength BI solutions to achieve their goals. Below, we will attempt to dispel some of these myths and offer some guidance on how to make the right purchasing and implementation decisions for your business.
Myth #1 – You really need a “cube-based” OLAP BI solution
Many vendors want you to believe that in order to make the best possible business decisions; your small to mid-sized company needs a full-fledged cube-based OLAP (On-Line Analytical Processing) BI solution that delivers real-time, up-to-the-nanosecond data.
Sure, this makes sense if you are a Fortune 1000 company with numerous divisions and databases and highly complex reporting requirements. Oh, and you’ve got mega-bucks to spend on trying out different BI solutions that will take a long time to implement and much more time to learn and use. We know that a cube-based OLAP tool does enable end users to slice and dice their data, perform multi-dimensional analysis, present information in graphs and charts, and more.
However, there is a high cost associated with maintaining these cube-based systems. For example, every time a new dimension is added to a multi-dimensional analysis, one has to make changes to all cubes that would use that dimension. Of course, one needs access to very high-level programming skills to do that, not to mention the budget to support this approach.
Myth #2 – You really need expensive, industrial-strength analytics to make informed business decisions
Make no mistake — having access to an analytics tool can be a very powerful component of your BI plan. Analytics enable end users to transform data into information and then get that information into the right hands and in the correct format to facilitate timely decision-making. This can help companies increase customer satisfaction, decrease costs, and increase revenues. However, there is a misconception that SMB companies must invest a small fortune in industrial-strength analytics. In reality, these companies are more interested in the macro view of their business (which BI can deliver), rather than getting so close to the actual transactions that you lose the departmental or company-wide perspective (needed for smarter decision making).
Myth #3 – You need to toss out all your spreadsheets
With all the high-priced applications now available in the fragmented BI marketplace, it’s easy to see why many vendors would scoff at the idea that your basic Microsoft Office Suite is quite adequate as a key component of your BI solution. They don’t want you to know that the most widely used BI tool today is an Excel spreadsheet. Almost everyone in the corporate world is familiar with Excel, its minimal learning curve, and the fact that the application leverages a company’s existing software solutions. Excel is often used to track expenses, create budgets and forecasts, and create reports from that data. Plus, Excel tools offer many useful features such as graphing, charting and pivoting that can assist decision-making.
Myth #4 – You really need to invest in a BI solution to achieve airtight compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley
The Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002 (also known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002) was passed by U.S. lawmakers to reinforce honest and transparent corporate practices in the wake of various public accounting scandals and corporate failures. As with any far-reaching legislation of this magnitude, there is plenty of hype that has emerged in connection with this law. Let’s clear up the picture as it relates to BI software and compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley.
For starters, here are two facts to consider: 1) The Act applies only to U.S. public companies and, 2) There is no software application certification provided under the Act. This means that you can’t achieve compliance with this Act by simply buying some BI tool. If you are concerned with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance or want to tighten your internal controls as a result of renewed focus on this area, there are software tools that you can utilize in concert with proper management of your internal processes for reporting, auditing and disclosure. In general, well thought-out applications can help you in your compliance efforts by making information more accessible and more transparent, and by highlighting anomalies.
A combination of accounting and BI-related reporting tools can serve as a vital part of your overall internal control compliance strategy. As you determine how to respond to the new challenges imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley, there is little doubt that much of your attention will be focused on managing, protecting and reporting on the data that at some point passed through your accounting system.