So, if Business Intelligence can increase profits, pinpoint marketing efforts, streamline processes and monitor employee performance - how does it work?
How your information is stored
There are nearly as many different types of business software as there are businesses, but each one behaves in a similar way, taking in the information entered and storing it on a database.
A database is a collection of tables which hold related information and are linked together by common strains of data, or keys.
A customer table may look something like the one below, the second table is an example of how customer contacts may be held.
So if a customer has two people who are your contacts, it will display the information like this:
Most databases comprise of a minimum of twenty or thirty tables and many can be more than a hundred, but the theory stays the same.
Joe's Garage uses 'Service-Station-Op', which, although it was produced by an obscure and now defunct software house, is a reliable database, and holds details of customers, completed jobs. It is more than capable of storing all of the data Joe needs to operate and expand his profitable enterprise.
A special programming language exists specifically for extracting this information and summarising it in different ways. This language is called SQL (Structured Query Language) and is the core of all Business Intelligence reporting.
Report writing software
SQL can be written long hand to produce lists of data, but doing this can be tedious and the results make complex viewing! Thankfully, software programs exist which provide a high level of control and fast development times.
The market for reporting software is dominated by Crystal Reports. Over the years it has deservedly become the de facto standard, and is regularly updated with new revisions that provide ever more sophisticated tools whilst retaining the straightforward user interface which makes it so attractive to users of all levels.
This is the development tool of choice for the majority of BI consultants (myself included) and produces robust, accurate reports within extremely quick development timeframes.
Naturally, the more popular a software package is, the greater the availability of specialist consultants. However, the ever increasing popularity of Business Intelligence means that the best BI consultants are highly in demand.
Joe has recently enjoyed considerable success after he stumbled across the concept of BI and hired a consultant, Patrick, to explore some potential marketing ideas. Patrick recommended Crystal Reports because he believes that it will be a worthwhile investment for Joe it is user-friendly enough for Joe to learn the basics over time, and has the capacity for Patrick to develop it to deliver on every one of Joe's demands.
Crystal Reports is not always the right choice and other options are available, such as Actuate and Sequel Server Reporter. Crystal Reports is, in my opinion, far superior in report production but the other options do have advantages when it comes to distributing reports.
Once a report is developed and filled with data it must be communicated to the people who need to use it.
For many small businesses this is not an issue as only one or two people need to the view the results and this can be done by simply using the software used to create the report.
For example, on the left is Crystal Reports in "design mode" and on the right, displaying the report with data.
A free report viewer is available for Crystal Reports, but reports still need to be manually emailed to the recipient and stored on a network they can view. This is usually an ideal and cost effective solution for small to medium businesses.
But distributing reports across a large company requires a different solution, particularly if the recipients need to see various variations of data on an ad hoc basis.
The owners of Crystal Reports (SAP) provide several solutions for distributing reports, the most useful being Crystal Server which allows reports to be viewed online, and also to be automatically scheduled and sent to whoever is licensed to receive them.
This can become quite an expensive approach when distributing across a large company, but other independently developed alternatives are available with a much smaller price tag.
The other reporting software options also come with their own distribution software, both pricing and functionality vary.
Most Distribution Software is licensed by how many users receive reports, but shopping around can save a lot of expense.
Joe is the only person who needs access to the reports, and only at one location, his office.
Because Joe's initial Business Intelligence requirement was for a one off solution, Patrick recommended using the free demo of the latest Crystal Reports.
By the time the 30 day demo has expired Joe has realised the value of BI and is happy to pay the reasonable amount for the licence (which he claims back as a business expense on his tax returns).
As his business expands, all the data for his other garages are also held on the one system, but Joe likes to have to freedom to view information while at the other garages and so installs the free viewer and carries a copy of his reports on a memory stick.
My personal experience is that Business Intelligence is usually implemented first for one department, and once the benefits are realised, an extended reports library is eventually adopted across the entire company.
"Cheap" BI solutions
Programs like MS Excel, Access, or similar, can be used for BI purposes and may seem like a cost effective solution if they are already installed for other uses, (although if being purchased specifically for BI they are around the same price as report writing software).
But, to tailor this type of generalist software to your specific BI needs will eat up significantly more precious development time, and is likely to work out more expensive than buying specialist software.
An added disadvantage to this cheap approach is that you become reliant on the person who developed your reports, as the system becomes ever more convoluted. Whether you become dependant upon a permanent member of staff who may become too busy with their other duties, or a consultant who may increase their prices, further development may be a problem.
Exporting data into a spreadsheet directly from a database is a popular solution, even in big companies with specialist BI departments. The time it takes to export the data and format / summarise it in a spreadsheet takes at least as long as it does to create a report using the correct software. And if the same data is needed next month the whole process begins again, whereas a report just needs the date to be changed or can even be programmed to run automatically.
This brief journey through the technical side of Business Intelligence should have enlightened you sufficiently to ensure any future discussion with your BI professional is tightly focussed on achieving your goals!