Carrying out Business Intelligence work purely in house seems financially savvy at first glance, especially if you have a Database Administrator. But the value that a BI expert can impart to your company is immense and can reach beyond the scope of the BI implementation itself.
Unless you happen to have an experienced BI consultant already working for your company, the only real way to make the most of this business opportunity is to hire professional help.
Faced with hundreds of providers offering Business Intelligence services, how do you ensure that you are choosing the appropriate specialist help, and paying a fair price for it?
Joe's Garage has been trading for over 15 years. However, times are tough, and Joe was musing on how he could stabilise the business. He recognised that the data held on his computerised customer records would be able to help him find ways to increase profits.
Having explored the concept of Business Intelligence, he decided that he would need to find an expert to help him realise his plans.
Various options exist and during my career I have been employed in most of these roles at some point:
Software Company Specialist
The company which developed the computer software that your business uses to collect and store its information will often be able (and very willing) to supply BI consultancy.
The strength of this option is that the consultant will know the database software really well and understand how it is storing your information.
The weakness is that this knowledge has been gained through developing the database software, and often can supply only a basic understanding of BI software and techniques with minimal experience in BI itself.
This option is usually very expensive.
This is the only BI role which I have not held. However, I have worked on several consultations which started with a brief to correct work undertaken by Software Company Specialists!
Reporting Company Specialist
In a way this is comparable to the first option. The software used to write BI reports (the core of any BI implementation) is developed and owned by companies that provide a consultancy service and / or have business partners that do.
The consultants who work for these companies are very good. The company usually insists they are accredited and know the software inside out. They also work with a wide variety of business sectors and so have the breadth and depth of experience to aid any company with their BI.
However, this option is also very expensive, usually a similar cost to the first option.
And its main weakness is that these companies have a strong bias for their own software, and aim to sell as many licences as possible.
There is a danger that they will suggest a solution to fit with the consultant skill base they have available at the time, rather than the best solution for the customer.
But if money is little or no object, these companies do deliver a quality service that is hard to fault.
Independent BI Consultant
Usually hired through an agency, a BI Consultant is an independent contractor who is hired to companies specifically for BI implementations or support.
This is a popular solution and most agencies have a department to deal specifically with BI contracts.
The main advantage of an independent BI consultant is cost - they are comparatively inexpensive against the first two options, maybe as much as five times cheaper.
Interestingly, both the database and the BI software companies will hire an independent BI Consultant if they have work they cannot cover with their own people.
One disadvantage of hiring an independent is the difficulty in ensuring the quality of service that they will provide. Obviously, the risk can be mitigated by insisting on references before hiring, but both agencies and consultants are resistant to this process as it can be time-consuming, especially as many consultants change job every three months.
Even so, this is not fool proof and furthermore, if the consultant encounters a personal disaster or illness, with the best will in the world, the whole BI implementation can fail.
BI Consultancy Company
This is a newish breed of company which strives to bring together all of the strengths of the above options, without the weaknesses.
In essence, these companies specialise in BI first and foremost. The software or business sector is a secondary focus, and by definition this ensures that the project is handled in a less biased, and therefore far superior way to any of the above options.
The main advantage of a BI consultancy is an unblinkered view to the best BI solution, based on broad experience and expertise.
The best BI consultancies operate more as a network of BI Consultants, so whilst you the customer are paying for a single consultant, there is support and expert assistance only a phone call away should that consultant run into any problem.
This solution is a much more cost effective choice than either of the first two options, despite the cost being higher than for most independent BI consultants.
After making some enquiries and weighing up the pros and cons, Joe calls Patrick, a consultant who works for a reputable BI Consultancy.
Although Patrick has not previously worked with a garage, he has worked with plenty of SMEs, many of which were in the service sector.
It does not take long for the two of them to thrash out a more detailed list of requirements. Not only are most of Joe's requests set out, the BI consultant uses his experience from other businesses to guide Joe and suggest different analyses that could be implemented.
When deciding on a BI consultant, I would advise to base your selection on the extent of their experience in providing BI solutions, over the amount of experience gained in your particular sector or trade.
A really good BI consultant will know how to apply their skill set to your requirements and will also bring a wealth of knowledge from other business sectors that can be translated and applied to your company, things that a sector expert is usually too blinkered to consider.
Pricing a Business Intelligence Implementation
Pricing a Business Intelligence implementation can be tricky and many consultancy firms take advantage of this fact.
The costing for an implementation is either on a 'per report' basis, or for an agreed time period.
If the implementation is priced per report, some unscrupulous "experts" may pad out the number of reports recommended to meet your requirements. This obviously increases the cost of the development, but it also impacts on the quality of the reports provided - valuable information that should ideally be held and viewed together is spread out across numerous reports.
The second option, and one favoured when hiring independent consultants, is to hire for a set amount of time.
This tends to work very well with ongoing ad hoc reporting, but when implementing a set amount of reports there is the possibility that they may not be completed within the time frame and further expense is incurred.
Personally, I suggest a mixed approach. Initially specify that a fixed term contract will be used for the development stage whilst the report specifications are being written, which will reduce the likelihood of unnecessary reports.
Only when moving on to the next stage, ask for a price per report. In most cases this will, coincidentally, add up to the same as the fixed term price. The difference is that if the work takes longer than planned it will not cost extra.
This may seem a little sneaky, but it is the best plan for getting a fair deal! Although most consultancy firms will not try to take advantage, this strategy will remove any temptation.
Joes Garage is a small company and hiring a consultant for a prolonged length of time is not affordable.
The Business Intelligence expert, Patrick, after an initial 2 day consultation, suggests a 'per report' costing with each report being priced individually for maximum cost effectiveness.
Patrick is being more than fair, but he knows from experience that the value he is able to deliver through a BI implementation often shows that the company will see benefit from continued use of BI, and so is keen to build a relationship.
Now that you have the right expert, at the right price, its time to set up your project and reap the benefits!