Good Business Intelligence will provide answers to your questions. Great Business Intelligence will answer the questions you wish you had asked.
So how do you ensure that your Business Intelligence is great Business Intelligence?
The first step is to develop a definitive picture of what you want the BI to deliver. Never lose track of core idea: BI should provide answers to your questions.
Initially, I would advise that you produce a list of dreams and desirables. Ignore whether data is actually available in this first step.
A good Business Intelligence professional will often be able to derive information from existing data where it would seem impossible - let them decide what is achievable and what is not.
It's extremely common for a BI implementation to highlight the benefit for new streams of data to be collected and stored.
Joe's Garage has expanded beyond all expectations through diligence and the use of Business Intelligence. As a result of this success, Joe has expanded the types of data he records and now, as well as customer and completed job records, the company also retains information on employee time keeping, job timings and costings, and a host of other areas of business.
As more information is collected Joe becomes increasingly excited about new opportunities.
With wish-list in hand, confer with anyone who may have an insight into the information your company is storing.
Now is the time to track down any information that anyone may be tracking on their personal spreadsheet etc, it can all be reported on and analysed, and can all be of benefit.
If your company has Database Administrators, they are likely to be more aware of what data is available than anyone else. Most IT, administrative and management roles involve elements of data collection, recording and monitoring, so prepare to be surprised by the scope of your existing data.
With your increased knowledge it is at this point that bringing in a Business Intelligence consultant is highly recommended, as expert guidance is crucial in making the most of the opportunity. In my previous article 'blah blah blah' I discussed the options available for hiring in expert help, and gave some handy pointers on pricing and negotiating contracts.
Joe has an in depth look at the data he and his staff have gathered over the past few months and makes some rough notes on areas of interest. The main core of Joe's focus is staff efficiency and work standards.
Whether you decide to use an in-house developer, or bring in a specialist consultant to execute your project, you will need a general understanding of reporting to be able to communicate your goals and requirements effectively.
Types of Reports
There are a few distinct categories of report styles, and the type of report you choose will determine how successfully the report will meet its objective.
The following list describes the basic types, which will give you an idea of the features and advantages of each. Please note, there are no hard and fast rules, and reports can be a mix of these types tailored to your specific requirements:
* Detail Reports - Essentially a list of all the information of interest. These are great for identifying particular records or problems. Additional formatting can be used to highlight records that may be of interest.
* Summary Reports - These provide totalled summaries of the data that is of interest, such as hours spent on a particular task in a week. The range of options for the type of summary total is extensive - average, sum, percent, count - to name a few (Crystal Reports has nineteen different types of summary). Results of Summary Reports are often displayed in charts for clarity.
* Drilldown Reports - This is like a Summary Report, but has the added feature that when you click on any summary total, the report displays the detailed data that makes up that summary.
* Dashboards - These are a collection of Summary Reports, usually viewed in graph form with a minimum of numeric values displayed, and are designed to give the viewer an immediate overview of a particular set of related information.
These options, either individually or used in conjunction, will meet virtually all business requirements no matter what the business sector.
Joe wants the freedom to look closely at all his data and so opts for drilldowns on all his reports. This allows him to investigate the cause of any summarised results that catch his attention. He particularly likes the idea of being able to compare employee work rates, and then look more closely into the data to see whether any patterns emerge.
Every report must specify the time span from which data is to be reported. It is important to make the right choice, and very much worth taking the time to give it careful consideration.
In a lot of cases your decision will depend on what the information is needed for.
For example a report which shows data from the previous six months in summary, with the current month's data shown on a day by day chart and in summary, is an invaluable tool for a manager to track their progress daily during the month.
However, if you want to measure the performance of a third party provider, measuring in four week blocks rather than months (which vary in length) is the only way to view performance consistently. Another common requirement for this type of report is to differentiate between work carried out during a standard working day and that which is resolved "outside of hours".
Comparing seasonal sales can also be of great importance depending on the type of business you are in.
The software used to create Business Intelligence reports is capable of producing any variation of date ranges imaginable, so some thought is required to take maximum advantage of all these possibilities. A good BI consultant will provide guidance and suggest viable options.
How often do you want to view the information?
This can also have an impact on the date ranges used for the report and should be considered when setting up a schedule for when reports are run.
Initially Joe wants a one off set of reports to show how his company is currently performing. However, he plans on making several changes based this analysis and wants to monitor how they alter profits.
Joe re-runs the reports weekly for the first month to monitor the initial impact of his changes, and decides that a monthly run will give enough information thereafter.
Once a report is developed it must be run to collect, manipulate and display the requested data, and the results communicated to the people who need to view it.
This can be done as a manual process, running the report and then either saving it to a suitably accessible drive, or emailing to the intended recipients.
However, specialist software is available for this purpose, and reports can be scheduled to run automatically at specified time interval, and results sent to recipients in a convenient format (usually Excel or PDF).
The size and scope of your project will determine whether specialist software is a worthwhile investment.
I discuss Distribution in greater detail in later articles.
The Development Process
Business Intelligence implementations are a different animal to other IT development and should be treated as such.
Traditionally, a design document is written to client specifications and once this is signed off as correct and complete, the software is developed and the project is considered finished. Any change to the software after this point incurs additional cost.
Developing BI reports however, should be a more fluid and iterative process. All efforts should be taken to identify what is needed before work commences, but the first draft of the developed report should be treated as just that, a first draft.
Many consultants will try to set requirements in stone as early as possible. This is usually done with the best of intentions, but by accepting a rigid template from the outset, there is a high likelihood of a compromise in the quality and scope of the finished reports.
There are many factors to consider, some subjective, or which seem a good idea in theory, but in reality do not achieve the desired results.
The result of Joe's initial meeting with Patrick generated more ideas for reports than Joe could realistically use or would be affordable in the short term.
Joe is toying with the idea of staff bonuses and so decides to focus exclusively on the times associated with different jobs. This is to encompass the performance variations between jobs completed on different days of the week, morning or afternoon, employee undertaking the job.
After viewing the first draft reports and further discussion with Patrick, Joe decides to have the various information presented wit one report for ease of reference, but knows this is as much work as producing three separate reports.
When is development complete?
Ideally, a report should only be signed off once its target audience has viewed, and ideally used the report with real data.
Minor requests are common at this stage. Often small adjustments are required to take account of factors which were not apparent at the time of the initial design discussion, but become obvious when viewing the report for real. For example, perhaps two columns which tend to be compared are illustrated at opposite ends of the report, thus requiring repositioning.
Many consultancies are not fond of this approach as it gives the customer the freedom to make changes their brief and requirements after work has already been done.
Personally though, I find that if the original requirements analysis is done correctly, any alterations needed later are minimal and worth the effort to fine the report exactly to the customers needs.
Patrick supplies a set of "prototype reports" which Joe looks over. Other than a couple small changes, the reports are exactly what Joe had envisaged.
However, after using them for a couple of days Joe decides that one report needs to be altered.
Patrick looks at the report and they agree that it does match the initial requirements exactly.
Joe is sure that, after viewing the other reports, he wants the information in a different format. He decides that he will keep the report in its original format as well, and so it is clear that the new format report is an extra requirement.
As this new report is derivative of the original it does not take a lot of work to develop, so Patrick is able to produce it at an affordable price.
So, in short...
To recap, here is a list of the basic steps involved in a Business Intelligence implementation.
Identify the Questions You Want Answering
Look Over Your Company Databases and See What You Have
Utilise Expert Help to Set a Solid and Agreed BI Implementation Scope
Evaluate the Developed Reports and Test Their Suitability
With All Alterations in Place, Sign-off the Implementation as Complete
And finally, reap the rewards of great Business Intelligence!