June 18, 2009
Embedded BI Dashboards for OEMs: Build or Buy?
When software manufacturers and OEMs consider embedding business intelligence dashboard software to their application(s), the 'build vs. buy' question almost always arises. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages with each option.
On one hand, by building their own BI dashboards, these companies save some upfront costs. They can also use the internal talent and resources they trust to make a module to their specifications.
On the other, however, there are a number of important considerations. Firstly, a BI module considered useful and competitive by today's best practices is hardly an ad-hoc project that can be successfully completed in a timely and accurate fashion by a firm whose core business is not BI.
Secondly, without any prebuilt elements, the software manufacturer would have to build everything from the ground up, which translates into much longer deployment times and higher costs of ownership in the long run. And lastly, time to market with the reports or BI cycles would start becoming much longer; and if there are any unforeseen bugs or problems with the module, all this is compounded.
Buying the dashboard module has, too, advantages and disadvantages. Upfront costs are generally higher—and can get truly substantial with some vendors--but the quality of the software, time to market and BI cycles are generally much better than if the company were to build its own.
The key is to identify embeddable dashboard software that has the following advantages:
1 - Is proven, useful, robust and Web-based, which means that it contains not only reporting and analysis features, but also easy ways for multiple users to access data and information as well as take action on it
2 - Is easily embeddable, which means flexible and compatible with the preexisting architecture of the company's software as well as with multiple data sources
3 - It is easily integrated with other software, from single sign-on to simple and comprehensive Style and CSS integration or reuse
4 - Is composed of prebuilt elements, which allows easy customization while saving coding time
5 - Is priced to produce a quick ROI
When dashboard software meets these conditions, buying the module is far preferable to building one, as it will be fulfilling its purpose efficiently, on time, without problems and without making the software manufacturer incur a high cost.
If you're looking for more information, LogiXML has an excellent white paper on embeddable dashboards and BI and the 'build Vs. buy' question.
June 9, 2009
GIS Mapping Good. Advanced GIS Mapping Even Better.
Geographic Maps Place Key Metrics in a Geographically-relevant Form
Geographic maps in business Intelligence let users make better decisions through geographic visualization and analysis of data. Geographic maps (or GIS maps) are a mashup of a Web-based geographic mapping interface--such as Google's--with corporate data from a database, Web service or other data source.
With good geographic mapping software, report developers can build pages in which markers show up on a map--markers that are tied to a specific metric, like for example retail-strore revenue. Thus, the size of the marker can give an at-a-glance idea of the relative performance of the stores. Also, the same markers can be set up to allow drill down or drill through to another report.
But advanced geographic mapping goes one step further. With advanced GIS mapping features, areas can also be color-coded not unlike a heat map, base on the underlying data to show how specific areas are performing (e.g. for a sales organization) or how they are affected by an event (e.g. appreciation of real estate).
Most data has a component that can be tied to a place; an address, postal code, global positioning system (GPS) location, census block, city, region, country, etc. Geographic mapping lets you visualize, analyze, create and manage data with a geographic component. And you can build compelling maps that help you visualize patterns, trends and exceptions in your data.
Benefits of Geographic Visualization
Using geographic mapping and visualization, users can visualize, explore and analyze data, revealing patterns, trends and relationships that are not readily apparent in other analysis features. Mapping can help you better answers questions such as:
- Where are my customers?
- What is the environmental impact of a new development?
- Where should I put new stores or facilities?
- How can I maximize my sales route or that of my reps?
- Who is impacted in an emergency?
- What are the highest traffic areas of a city?
The best geographic visualization tools offer the possibility to download boundary information from commonly available sources (e.g. the US Census) without having to build everything by hand. Also, they enable drill-down, drill-through to other reports, as well as the placing of markers on the map that are tied to relevant metrics.
June 4, 2009
Business Intelligence for Sales
The Role of BI in Sales: the Old and the New
If you are in sales, have been in sales, or know someone who's a rep, you are probably familiar with this image: the rep sitting at the computer around 7 PM, "doing maintenance" which more often than not involves inputting endless amounts of facts and factoids into a spreadsheet. Going through the motions--but motions that, somehow, are required by the boss, by finance, and by an assorted number of bigwigs in the company. This is the old model of BI for sales.
The new model of BI for sales is radically different. Easier to use, more dynamic and interactive, it is focused on taking action rather than recording information. It is geared towards using current and past data to guide the reps and their managers to constantly refine their knowledge of their business, to spot untapped potential and to encourage a healthy spirit of emulation among team-members, ultimately boosting both sales and teamwork.
The Old Model and Its Drawbacks
The old model of BI in sales is problematic because it is almost entirely reactive. The rep essentially uses BI as a receptacle of facts and figures that have already taken place. Sure, these facts and figures will be analyzed by someone at some point, typically through a process similar to this:
1 - The rep records the facts as maintenance
2 - The sales manager collects all the reps' records in one massive spreadsheet
3 - The spreadsheet is analyzed by various functions (often not talking to one-another), such as product management, sales management, finance, human resources, operations
4 - The results of the analysis, often varying depending on who was the author, are then (hopefully) relayed back to the sales reps, more often than not at the end of the quarter when it's too late to do anything to correct the situation.
Worse yet, in many organizations each rep has his own way to record data or to prepare a report, leaving it to the district- or sales manager to do the consolidation, which can be then riddled with inconsistencies and manual errors. "Good enough for government work" is actually not good enough at all: especially when more and more companies are getting smart and making intelligent use of reporting and analysis tools.
Other drawbacks of the old model of BI for sales are as follows:
- Maintenance time takes time away from face-to-face client relationships
- This model tells reps and management only what reps see and experience. Untapped potential slips by unnoticed
- This model fosters a reactive culture rather than a proactive one
- Even reaction is oftentimes too slow, since there are no built-in mechanisms to correct situations in real time before the end of important deadlines
- Analysis becomes subjective, and is often different depending on the department and function performing it, thus greatly watering down its strategic value
Today's more forward-looking companies, on the other hand, understand that BI should be an active partner of sales. The least thing it should do is record facts. Where its true value lies is in enabling the sales reps to, essentially, know more than their competitors, but with much less effort, while being able to take actions in real time to continually improve the quarter.
In other words, effective BI for sales can suggest what to do tomorrow rather than parrot what's happened yesterday.
The New Model and its Benefits
If the old model's focus is recording and reaction, the goal of the new model is action through knowledge of the most important facts. In the new model of BI for sales, reps employ easy to use, Web-based interfaces to learn, understand and share data and information about their product, clients, territory, operations and even competitors so they can act upon it in real time. For example, a good BI solution will automatically suggest to a sales rep what the best sales route would be, computing it through geographic maps and the system's intelligent understanding of customers' value.
It may also suggest to the rep which route to take to ensure that the quota of a specific line is met--all at the click of a mouse. And of course, it will enable the rep to share, in real time, critical information with clients. We will see practical examples of this model. For now, let's list some of its main benefits:
- Enabling reps to get to know their territory better
- Enabling reps to see sales targets and acting to meet and surpass them
- Always having reliable information that is consistent company-wide, to share with clients
- Letting reps and managers spotting the potential in their territory, so that it can be exploited for a healthier competitive position
- Putting in place an "understand, act, test result" cycle for continuous performance improvement
- Boosting teamwork by letting management share with the reps the success stories, the goals met and other landmarks with one, consistent set of numbers
Let's now delve a little deeper into the new model of business intelligence for sales, and use some examples to see how its features can be beneficial to the forward-thinking sales organization.
A Closer Look at a Smart BI Model for Sales
Let's take a step back and look at what "smart BI" is in a general sense. Yes, "smart business intelligence" may seem like a redundancy, but it is not. BI is a tool. Tools shouldn't come out of the box unless there is a specific task to perform. Thus, even an "intelligent" tool will be ineffective or even detrimental unless it is smartly aimed at fulfilling that task.
You've heard the expression "if you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail"; unfortunately, that has been the reason why BI has not been implemented smartly by a high number of companies. According to analyst firm Gartner, lack of a strategic focus has been by far the number one reason why BI projects fail. For these companies, just having BI must have automatically meant "being smarter," while in reality they were wasting money and resources on something that was being used inefficiently (at best).
In a general sense, smart BI is this: business intelligence solutions and processes squarely aimed at fulfilling the company's strategic goals. Through smart BI, resources and processes are optimized, inefficiencies are minimized, potential is identified and exploited--all for the strategic advancement of the company.
Smart BI for a department within the company (in our case, sales), is no different. It should be squarely aimed at fulfilling the strategic goal of the department, of course within the greater environment of the company's own goals.
But to do this, it needs to identify the "levers" of action, which in turn depend on knowledge of the most critical information. Let's take a closer look.
The Strategic Goal of Sales
Of all departments, the goal of sales within the company's strategy should be the most self-explanatory. Doing away with motivational-poster-style corporate poetry, the goal of sales is to drive up revenue and increase market-share. This, in turn, means two things:
1 - Matching the most productive clients with the most profitable product lines and helping drive up demand
2 - Outperforming the competition with existing customers, new prospects and even untapped segments of the market that may be favorable to the company's type of business
Fulfilling this goal relies heavily on knowledge--knowledge of the product, of the clients, of the territory, of the competition, and of the possibilities that may not have been yet explored but that may be a gold-mine waiting to be exploited. In short, fulfilling this goal relies heavily on knowledge.
Enter Business Intelligence
Business intelligence can give sales the knowledge required to fulfill the goal outlined in the previous point. But the key here is not just knowledge in the old-fashioned sense: it's making knowledge actionable, so that there can be a continuous, active drive towards higher performance, while guided by sound and critical pieces of information.
In general, a dynamic, Web-based BI solution that is deployable company-wide and optimized to fit each department's strategic goals should give sales these benefits:
- Optimizing sales routes and minimizing windshield time, by setting up automatic reports in which the lifetime value of each customer stands out, and by mashing up key metrics about customers' history and potential with geographic maps.
- Correctly identifying the potential in your line and territory, by using robust data analysis features to quickly and intuitively identifying the reasons behind numbers and finding new opportunities.
- Being proactive rather than reactive, and correcting situations before they develop into problems, through dashboards, scorecards and actionable KPIs. These give you a tangible, real-time view of sales targets, increasing motivation and letting team members take critical actions while they can still make a difference.
- Becoming the clients' reliable business partner, by sharing consistent data about product, profitability, inventory, orders and more through impactful reports and visualization tools available from anywhere with Internet connection.
- Increasing face-time with clients, by making account maintenance easier and quicker through automatic report-generation and easy connection with the company's CRM system.
For a practical example of how some BI tools--used smartly in this "new" way--can help improve sales, check out my post on Heat Maps for Sales.
May 17, 2009
Automated Processes and Integration with Other Business Applications
Automated processes are ways to ensure that certain actions taken within business intelligence software are the first step of an "automatic process" that ends with that action having the intended consequences within the system or within another business application.
In other words, in addition to pulling and presenting information in a report, developers can set up automatic database updates from within the report. For example, developers can build reports that allow business users to update inventory levels right within their inventory reports, or cancel a product shipment if a report shows that a product is out of stock.
Developers can seamlessly integrate your BI output in any of your other business applications using Web services. For example, if a customer fills out a form on your Web site and clicks "submit," you can make sure it sends that person’s contact information straight to your CRM application.
Benefits of Automated Processes
Automated processes help BI users become more efficient in the actions they take. Instead of noticing something on a report, then having to pick up the phone or open another application to take action, automated processes allow the user to act directly from within the report.
This ensures that actions occur in a timely fashion; also, it ensures consistency between the data and the numbers occurring within the BI application and those used in the rest of the company.
April 14, 2009
Using Heat Maps to Improve Sales--an Example of Business Intelligence in Action
BI: A problem looking for a solution or a solution looking for a problem?
Someone said that heat maps are the candy of business intelligence: taken with pointed moderation, heat maps are great for you, but abuse them and they'll produce unwanted fat in your budget and time. What do I mean? Let's see if you can answer this question: what is the main reason why business intelligence projects fail? If you've said "technical problems," you're stone-cold. If you've said "for lack of a meaningful business-intelligence strategy," you've hit the bull's-eye.
According to analyst firm Gartner, only five to ten percent of firms deploying business intelligence (BI) have a clear strategy for implementing their new resource. And guess what? These are the companies for which BI makes a tangible difference--yes, I'm talking ROI, as cliche' as that sounds. In other words, these companies begin with outlining the direction in which they want to go, then select the appropriate tool to take them there. And in most cases, they reach their destination. For the others, instead, BI is--at best--a tool looking for a problem to fix.
Let's use a practical example of how a common business situation can benefit from finding the right BI tool--in this case, heat maps.
Heat Maps and Sales--An Example
You are the VP of sales. Your goal: to aggressively increase your outside salesforce's effectiveness. Your resources: your existing salesforce, say, 100 strong, and a few tens of thousands of dollars in budget.
You break down your tactics into three major pieces.
First, seeing the effectiveness of your current salesforce: who's performing well and who isn't. Secondly, identifying the reasons behind well- and poor-performing salesmen. And thirdly, taking corrective action to maximize the effectiveness of your resources, and testing the results.
The first thing you need is hit your data, and find a way to ask it the right questions.
Your data is in an old-fashioned table. The rows represent the individual salesmen, or their territories. The columns show you different things--from orders taken year to date (YTD) in units and dollars, to numbers of visits, to percentage achieved of sales-goal, to percentage achieved in each product line. How do you make immediate tactical sense of all this? This is when business intelligence--and meaningful business intelligence tools like heat maps--will come in handy. See? Problem first, tool later.
I Know What a Heat Map Looks Like; What exactly Is It?
There are many different ways to define heat maps. I like mine. A heat map is a visualization tool that displays data from a table through cell-size and color in a way that a) makes immediate sense and b) helps you quickly answer your "why" questions. "Immediate" and "quickly" being the operative words.
Each cell of a heat map represents a row of data in the table; cell-size and color represent two columns--whichever you want them to be. A color slider under the heat map allows you to spot outliers on either end of the values of the column associated with color.
And unlike a traditional graph, heat maps are optimal to display multiple rows of data--up to hundreds of rows--which would result in a visual mess on a traditional table.
Using our scenario as an example, you now have 100 cells on your heat map--your 100 rows in the table, or your 100 salesmen. You choose to assign cell size to (say) YTD sales in dollars, and cell color to number of orders taken.
Also unlike a traditional graph, a heat map will automatically sort things for you--by cell size. So you'll immediately see that Johnson's big cell is at the top-left of the map, telling you that he's got the highest YTD sales in dollars, while poor old small Flaherty's on the bottom right has the fewest. Cell color, though, tells you that Johnson has taken fewer orders than Flaherty--all this without you doing nothing but staring at a colored gizmo for a few seconds. And now, if you move your slider left, you see that Joyce has taken the least amount of orders, while Hernandez has taken the highest.
So, you're now convinced that a heat map can give you a useful way to implement your sales strategy--time to spend the budget on BI and roll forward.
Using the Heat Map to Drive Your Sales
Let's think back to the three tactical pieces that the heat map will help you fulfill.
First: seeing the effectiveness of your current sales. As a sales manager, you know that YTD revenue is not necessarily directly proportional to effectiveness. A more useful yardstick would be to compare the individual salesman's YTD sales quota percentage achieved to the number of sales visits: if you can spot a positive relation between them, you can easily identify the outliers as the problem situations that need the most immediate fixing. And a heat map is the perfect tool to do this quickly.
Assign the "sales quota % achieved" column to cell size, and the "number of sales visits" column to cell color. Immediately, the map will tell you if there's a (generally) positive correlation between the two values. If the color tends to go to one hue as the cells get bigger and to the other as they get smaller, you have got your answer. Yes, the relation is positive: the more visits, the higher the percentage of the sales goal each salesman achieves. In this case, spotting areas of inefficiency is as easy as moving your color slider to the left: see which salesmen have paid the least amount of visits, and urge them to make more calls.
If the relation is not positive, spotting outliers will also tell you about potential problem areas. Move your slider to the right, and see which salesman, in spite of a high number of visits, has underachieved. Time to retrain? To realign the customer-base? To revisit the sales targets? Regardless, the heat map has alerted you of the situation.
Second: identifying the reasons behind your sales performance. Let's say that the relation between visits and YTD goal met is positive. You already know one potential reason for the performance of your salesmen--frequency of visits. To confirm this, quickly see if there's also a direct relation between visits and orders taken, which is as simple as assigning a new column (number of orders taken) to either color or cell size.
But how do you explain the outliers? Play around with your heat map. For instance, have you asked yourself if the product mix is right for all territories? To assess this, simply reassign your heat-map cell size to percentage achieved in each product line. This will tell you more pointedly if there are some product lines that are impervious to more visits, suggesting that there may be an opportunity to optimize the mix for that territory.
A handy feature along these lines would be drill-down (especially in a Web-based heat map). If you could drill down on each individual cell to see--for instance--what YTD goal each salesman has achieved in each individual line, you would be giving yourself a lot of flexibility and would be able to obtain even more answers quickly from your heat map.
Third: taking corrective action and testing the results. Depending on the answers you obtained in steps 1 and 2, you now have a strong grasp of your current situation as well as the possible reasons behind them. You can now start outlining some tactics for improving the situation--starting, for instance, with urging salesmen to pay more visits to their clients or to readjust the product mix for certain territories or regions.
The usefulness of a heat map--with its giving you an immediate (but accurate) snapshot of a situation--is even higher as you test your new solutions. After a week, for instance, you can already see if there's a positive correlation between the increased number of visits by your underperforming salesmen and a higher number of orders.
All this analysis and testing can be performed in minutes, while without the heat map, it would take days if not weeks.
As long as you ensure that you have a clear strategy, and that you break down this strategy into manageable tactical steps, modern interactive business intelligence tools like Web-based heat maps are invaluable. In the hands of an intelligent and creative manager, a heat map is nothing less than an oracle that will reveal--in an intuitive way--the situation, the possible causes behind it and likely ways to overcome your problems and propel your company towards more revenue.
April 7, 2009
Ten Questions to Ask Your BI Vendor Before You Buy
Choosing the right business intelligence (BI) and reporting solution for an entire organization is usually a challenging and difficult process. There are many variables to consider, especially in larger organizations; so, making this decision a successful one is particularly difficult.
Due to the dynamic landscape of the software industry, the BI vendor and the products you and your colleagues evaluate today might look considerably different when your BI project is actually completed. Unfortunately, this makes planning for and considering the costs associated with licensing, labor, hardware, training and execution very frustrating to managers like you.
As your organization narrows down its choice of BI and reporting tools, here ten questions that most BI vendors don't want you to ask. The answers to these questions should give you a clearer sense of the capacity of a company's product and the depth of the company's commitment to BI and reporting. They should also help you better gauge the company's ability to deliver the product and service you need to be successful. Depending on the answers, you should emerge from discussions with the BI vendor with increased confidence or some significant reservations.
1. Is Your BI and Reporting Platform Unified?
Many companies offer a portfolio of BI and reporting tools that can complement one another in your implementation. For example, you might start with a managed reporting solution where report developers build and deliver corporate reports for the organization, and then, later, add an ad hoc reporting solution for any end users in the organization to get self-service reports. However, how the portfolio of products was built, assembled or purchased--for example, due to a series of company mergers and acquisitions--can have serious and sometimes debilitating
impacts on your BI and reporting implementation.
If a company's BI and reporting platform is truly unified, all their BI products are designed and built to share key attributes like security, look-and-feel, installation approach, and report processing. This makes adding future features and products a relatively easy and seamless exercise. For example, if the same user interface, the same product terminology, and a similar logic to the report building process are used, the learning curve for each new product is reduced, the developer's expertise with the tools is increased, and new features and products you add can be live in no time.
A truly unified environment will also automatically connect and consolidate processing elements to support more efficient execution.
In contrast, a series of non-integrated products--even though they carry the same vendor label--can present integration problems for users, in effect transferring some of the cost of product acquisition onto the users. You may waste valuable time and IT resources tweaking these products and features so they can all work together.
Bottom line - A truly unified platform offers clear advantages in training, maintenance, integration and time-to-market for new BI application and report development implementations.
2. Do You Have User-based or Server-based Pricing?
Most BI and reporting companies structure their licensing agreements to include a price for the initial software purchase. They also usually include a limited set of user licenses in the initial package allowing five, twenty or even thirty users to take advantage of the software.
However, once your implementation exceeds that number, you will have to pay for each additional user seat separately. There also may be additional cost considerations like 'cost per transaction' or cost based on data size.
The catch is that the more successful your BI and reporting implementation is, the more it can cost you. This approach hinders the success of "BI for the masses" where managers at every level of an organization can access critical information to improve operational and financial performance.
The benefits of server-based pricing (for example, per processor) with unlimited users are themselves unlimited. With this pricing model, you save the organization significant dollars, increase BI availability across the organization as well as reduce IT complexity for maintaining and keeping track of user licenses.
If you are able to negotiate a zero-cost option for user seats, you can afford to extend the benefits of BI and reporting to users organization-wide and exponentially increase business performance.
Bottom line - Be sure to check all costs, especially the "cost per user" provision in your contract proposal. If you do not, you risk limiting your BI products to a small set of users in your organization or incurring unplanned costs for additional users.
For more on this topic, please read my blog post on BI licensing or this LogiXML white paper on licensing models in business intelligence.
3. Are Your BI Products Data-source Neutral?
Data-source neutrality has haunted the software industry for a very long time, specifically in the business application, programming tool and BI and reporting sectors. Data-source neutrality means a) ability to support different databases and b) ability to support other data sources such as flat files, Web services, the Cloud, RSS feeds, etc. Let's touch on them separately.
In some cases, tight integration with a pure processing database management system (DBMS), rather than the BI or reporting application, can have real benefits in speed and processing power. However, that extra speed or efficiency may not offer needed flexibility.
To the user, the differences in how data is accessed may seem to be of little consequence as long as it is delivered within the report, dashboard or query they want to use. However, limiting the ability to access data is, on a fundamental level, counter to sound BI and reporting principles.
All of the apparent advantages of tight integration with a particular DBMS can be eliminated by a single management decision to select a different DBMS, for example, due to an unanticipated technology change or an unforeseen
merger/acquisition that dictates the switch to a different underlying database. In addition, new processing capabilities that support integration of unstructured data could be compromised by tight integration with a particular DBMS server platform.
Also, a Web-based BI application should be able to support more than just different databases. It should also be able to connect to the more nontraditional data sources that are springing up practically every quarter--from RSS feeds to Salesforce.com, from the Cloud to Web services, etc. And let's not forget flat files (e.g. Excel, XML, Word, etc.), which are not going to disappear any time soon.
Is my new application going to support new data sources coming up next year? It is engineered to be flexible enough in this regard, or am I going to need complex and expensive data-integration tools in case I wanted to take advantage of a new data technology?
Bottom line - Insist on data-source neutrality as the best insurance for long-term viability of your BI applications and reports.
4. What Are the Hidden Costs?
A critical buyer should always evaluate the price of a software product versus the cost of a product implementation. The list price of a product is certainly a key consideration, and, in the case of BI and reporting projects, the cost of product maintenance, product upgrades and additional users must also be carefully
However, the cost of consulting services can be particularly onerous in BI and reporting implementations. This is because the impact of the project is very closely related to the business performance of the organization.
It also involves manipulating the precious data resources of the company. If the product isn't easy to integrate, set up and use, you will have to spend a fortune on professional services and training to get your product implemented. In addition, a small measure of "insurance" in the form of a professional services engagement to establish a "proof of concept" can lead to the vendor taking de facto control of the project.
The danger in this scenario is that you may end up spending much more time and money on consulting services than even on licensing costs.
A product that is easy to integrate, set up, upgrade and use will save you much more time and money in the long run.
Bottom line - Take the time before you buy to evaluate the real cost of professional services including what the company is charging to configure, customize and integrate your BI implementation so there are no surprises when it is time to sign the contract.
5. What Is the Vendor's Real Business Focus?
Your company has a clear objective for its internal performance, and chances are good that you are doing your best to find a BI and reporting solution that will help you advance toward that goal. Similarly, every BI software vendor has an internal objective. Do you know what that objective is?
While every business has a right to its own priorities, a potential user has a vested interest in knowing what those priorities are so they can evaluate the impact of their product and vendor choice for future project success. Full transparency of the vendor's actions, motives and plans will help guide your choice.
In some cases, a company's focus may be on constant BI product improvements, but, for others, BI products may simply be a "loss-leader" offering to generate revenue growth in related areas like professional services or database server licenses.
The catch is that your purchase of their software may help the vendor reach their short-term revenue objectives, but, because you are not in their strategic sweet spot, your company may not be a valued customer in the long term. In addition, if the vendor's overall emphasis is not on BI, you may not see significant BI product or feature set improvements over time.
Bottom line - Make sure you understand the business focus and know the longterm business objective of your vendor.
6. What Is Your Performance Trend?
Most likely your company is selecting software at a point in time where business objectives, budget allocation and staffing capacity all intersect to justify the investment. Just as these factors are leading your company in a manner that contributes to its ability to execute the BI program, it is in your best interest to review a vendor's performance trend to assess their ability to continue product innovation, offer long-term product support and to grow and demonstrate leadership as a company.
One means of evaluating a company's performance trend is to evaluate where they were 60 months ago, 36 months ago and 6 months ago so that you can project future trends. A company that shows significant revenue growth but limited software license growth may be repositioning themselves as a professional services provider rather than an innovative software product developer. In contrast, a company that
shows strong software license revenue and a high rate of new product introductions more than likely will continue down the same path. Also, verify the company's trend in product innovation and improvements such as determining how often new versions are released, what types of features are added, whether the product is getting better, and so on.
You need to decide which trend works for you and evaluate several factors that may affect your plan. For example, can you count on this company to continually innovate? Will this company support you long into the future? Has this company reached its peak, or is it on a strong growth path?
Bottom line - Every product choice is a company choice as well. As you invest in a partner organization, consider that the organization's past is a prelude to the future.
7. Can I Try Your Software With My Own Data?
To a great extent your BI and reporting product purchase is a "blind buy" in which you are taking a leap of faith. You can read independent reviews of a product, poll colleagues and friends in the industry or hire a third party consultant to make a recommendation. However, until you actually experience how the product works for you, in your IT environment, with your data and integrated with your company's particular way of doing business, you cannot know for certain that it is the right product for you.
All of us want to put our best foot forward when showing off our company or our products. Most BI software vendors are eager to do the same, developing elaborate demonstration databases to help showcase their BI products. These are valuable tools for gaining an appreciation of new features and product capabilities and can help you evaluate the company's vision and commitment to the product.
However, in the end, you are going to be developing reports for and analyzing your own data. Many features that are optimized in the demonstration database may be difficult or impossible to run in your own environment without significant modification. Your own familiar data--not just demo data--will show you the real value of the systems and clearly highlight any limitations.
Some companies will offer limited demo versions of products, which may help you evaluate some features. These demo versions do not provide enough of a developer or user experience to project how the completed BI or reporting application will work or look to the users.
You may insist on a paid demonstration consulting engagement in which the vendor's technical team will install the product and assist in developing a working project that indeed shows the strengths and weaknesses of the product. The catch is that by the time you have anything to show for your development efforts you have already expended too much time and money to reverse your decision.
Bottom line - Demand a free working product to "prove the business case" before writing the check for a business-critical project.
8. Can I Talk to References Listed on Your Web Site?
Software companies are always eager to tell prospects that large, established, dynamic or innovative companies are using their software products. A quick review of their Web sites will usually showcase a series of these clients. It is well worth your while to ask to actually speak with a sampling of these customers to make sure their experience meets your expectation of the product's capabilities and the organization's level of support.
Bottom line - Be wary if the vendor cannot or will not give you the requested contact information. In such a case, you have to ask "why?"
9. Do You Offer and Support User Communities?
In the Web era, the overall experience of a product can extend well beyond the direct relationship between customer and vendor. Today, BI and reporting tools are in many ways living entities, constantly being experimented with, extended, refined and tweaked by a community of users. In the past, the route for the improvements that this dynamic process yielded was very narrow, and the process was very slow.
Users told the company what they thought about improvements, and software companies made the improvement in their next release.
Today, the process of improvement, extension and collaboration of the product is dynamic, immediate and democratic. If your vendor supports their community of users via a site for contributing ideas, code, sample reports, and documentation you will be able to tap into a technical networking community that can offer your company a potentially unlimited source for BI and reporting creativity.
Bottom line - Find out how the company supports its users. A company that supports a user community adds considerable value to your investment.
10. Is Your Product Line Purely Web-based?
The impact of the Web has changed the world of BI and reporting. A Web-based approach is very fitting for BI and reporting products, offering an optimal medium to present, interact with and share data. The many benefits of BI and reporting products that take advantage of the Web are obvious, and some are more subtle. A pure Web-based BI product is not only free of the inherent limitations of client/server-based architecture, it is adaptable to the innovations that the Web continues to present in terms of output devices, information sharing technologies and deployment options.
How well a product takes advantage of the capabilities of the Web is completely dependent on how it is architected. Many products can make a case for being Web-enabled and, with some tinkering, can present a serviceable Web interface.
The catch is that Web-enabled platforms might give you a short-term fix that responds to immediate user demand to view reports via the Web at the expense of a long term cure that will allow unrestricted Web-based delivery of your reporting applications far into the future. And, this short-term fix may still approach a report as a static printable, paper-based page with limited interactivity or Web features.
Only a pure Web-based approach can take full advantage of the interactive and dynamic features now being implemented on the Web. This approach should just require a standard browser that works on any platform to view and interact with reports. A product that uses AJAX and other standard pure Web technologies can make reports as interactive as a Web page can be.
Bottom line - If your organization is committed to a Web-based future, make sure your vendor is offering a pure Web-based product.
April 3, 2009
The Magic of BI Wizards in Report Development
It's 4:00 on Friday afternoon. You are a report developer. Your project manager comes to you and asks for a last-minute "must-have" report to show in yet one more dimension what the sales status, revenue and costs are by sales territory.
Yes, you know you've already given this report to them in a thousand different ways--but let management be management. Darn. Happy hour is coming up--not just any happy hour, but one in which your best friend is bringing you an promising-sounding blind date. And here you are, now at 4:10 PM, tasked with preparing a report that shows columns so-and-so, has such-and-such pie charts and even an export button to PDF.
The Wizard to the Rescue
Last year, the same situation would have made you (actually, come think of it, did make you) hopping mad. With your antiquated BI solution, you had to hard-code the report, working through the week-end to deliver it to the bigwigs.
This year, however, you have a dynamic, Web-based BI solution that features a wizard-driven development environment. You make a quick note of the requirements from management, and you proceed to create your report.
The elements--such as data layers, report columns, group filters, export action and charts--are pre-built. So all you have to do is launch the wizard, and the rest happens practically at clicking speed. With hopeful visions of your new blind date in mind, you set out to create the report in 45 minutes so you can be out the door by 5.
1 - You create, name and save the new application--which is as simple as right-mouse-clicking on an existing report from your development files, and selecting "new application" and save it with a new name.
2 - You launch the report-creation wizard, which asks you which type of report you want (in this case an SQL-type data table) and which set of objects in your database you want to link to. Click, click. Done.
3 - Within the set of objects, you specify which columns you want visible. Here, you look at your hand-written notes with one eye and with the other follow the mouse as it clicks and drags the columns into the wizard. Double-check--done.
4 - Finish. The wizard has given you your basic report, which you preview in your browser. All A-OK.
6 - You add a PDF export button, with a pre-built PDF export action. All this takes you a whole of a minute, including testing.
7 - Ditto for the group filter and the pie charts. Test. Save. Done.
You now have spent 20 minutes to create and test the report, and you draw a breath. You have still a good 20-minutes before you are out the door. Hmmm... let's give them a little added value and look like a hero...
Your CSS-whiz colleague has created a swanky stylesheet that you can apply to all reports. The development environment lets you simply "apply" a pre-created style to any report, which is what you do in a few clicks.
One last save and preview--all works.
You have therefore created a full report complete with PDF export and visualization tools in less than an hour, with five minutes to spare. You email the URL to the report to the project manager, get your coat, give yourself a quick look in the office-hallway mirror and head to happy hour.
March 26, 2009
Elemental Development in BI: the Advantages
LogiXML has developed a unique and innovative paradigm for report application
development--a concept that we have termed Elemental Development (ED).
Implementing an ED-centered environment is based on an extremely high level, re-usable XML-based language that fits specific business intelligence needs. And, this XML-based language can be thought of as a dictionary for application development.
Traditional high-level languages such as Visual Basic or C focus on providing a flexible and robust framework for creating applications of almost any type. An ED language, however, is formed for a specific type, or class, of application. Once built, it can be reused to rapidly develop similar applications with a huge savings in development and maintenance time and costs.
This is because ED standardizes and simplifies the development process.
Benefits for Report Developers
The ED approach offers the following valuable benefits for developers:
1 - Streamlined Development. This approach takes advantage of the self-documenting, intuitive and descriptive nature of prebuilt elements. For example, if you see an Email element in a report, you quickly know that the report form sends email. If you see a User Role element, you know that role-based security is implemented, and you can determine how that security is set up by looking at the attributes that describe the User Role element. Also, less actual coding is required. Using wizards and drag-and-drop, developers can easily build complex reports (for example, with drill-down, data grouping and filtering) without having to build complex SQL queries, subroutine calls or advanced command constructs.
2 - Increased Productivity and Faster Deployment. Accomplish report development in a matter of hours instead of the weeks and months that may be required of other development tools due to:
a) Ease of use and reusability of elements
b) Logical and hierarchical layout of elements, which makes it easy to understand and manage layout and functionality of larger reports
c) Ability to change report layouts or functionality 'on the fly'--just by modifying elements and attributes in the report definition
d) Based on well-known, non-proprietary open technologies and standards like XML,.NET, SOAP, Web Services, and so on
3 - Scalability--This approach leverages multi-tier development and multi-tier deployment inherent in Web-based applications, which is by nature, more scalable than licensebased or traditional development.
March 13, 2009
BI for the Mid-Market Part 2: Comparing BI Tools for the Midsize Company
Comparing the common BI tools for the mid-market company
If we look at the main BI tools available to the mid-market company today, we see the following models: free BI, open-source BI, on-demand BI, legacy BI and dynamic Web-based commercial solutions. Each model has benefits and drawbacks, as we will see directly.
(By the way, LogiXML has a really good White paper on BI for the Mid-Market that is worth reading.)
Are there free BI solutions out there, ready for download, that can get a company squared away with business intelligence? You bet. And some of them are also pretty darn good, in the sense that they are truly free, are easy to connect, don't require much maintenance and are robust enough to give the company the tangible benefits of BI. For the sake of this discussion, we will only consider solutions that have these advantages--it's up to the project manager shopping for BI to ensure this so that the company doesn't get hooked on a (emphasis on the quotation marks) "free" product that turns into a money-pit and is hard to work with to boot.
A good free BI solution has many advantages for the mid-size company. First of all, it requires no upfront costs, which is a boon, especially in these hard economic times. Then, a good free BI solution will not be resource-intensive to build, use and maintain--which would conversely negate the savings enjoyed initially. As far as connection, it will offer the possibility to link to various types of traditional and nontraditional data sources, such as databases, Web services and flat files.
And it will do so out of the box.
Some of the better free BI solutions are Web-based, are embeddable into other software solutions or applications and are relatively robust and feature-rich. This means that if they are used to their fullest or near-fullest potential, they have the capability to empower many users within the organization to report on and analyze their data in a reliable, efficient and creative way, giving the company a chance to become much more competitive than prior to having BI. Features like tabular, cross-tab and free-style reports, drill-down and drill-through capability, rich visualization features and the ability to export reports to common formats such as Excel, CSV, Word, HTML, etc. will be in many cases all that the users need to become measurably more effective in their tasks.
Lastly, the better free BI solutions will not require upgrading to a commercial solution, but will leave that as an open option for the company. And at upgrade time, with a good free BI solution, reports won't need to be rebuilt, making the transition smooth and seamless.
A good free BI solution has very few drawbacks. If the alternative is no BI or investing time, resources and cash into a risky project, free Web-based BI available for download is the proverbial no-brainer. Sure, you may not have at your disposal the latest in dashboarding, complex data analysis tools, robust user-driven ad-hoc reporting, OLAP or advanced visualization tools like heat maps, but as far as the basics, you will be covered. And you will have these basics out of the box.
Commercial open-source BI works in this manner. The vendor takes a product that was created in the open source community and makes it their own so that they can market it. Since by definition an open source product cannot be sold, commercial open-source vendors make money through services, support and any add-ons that they have built themselves. So, although they are not selling the core product, they are still selling something.
One of the things that makes a pure open-source model attractive is the flexibility it offers for customization, although this comes with a substantial flip-side. The buyer has access to the source code, so his team can add, modify or delete anything they want. But here's the rub: as soon as they do this, they're deviating from the source. So at that point they either need to become active participants in the community (submitting their changes for everyone else to use), or they have to move further away from the core and hope not to run into any major landmines within the source that they need to ultimately fix by themselves.
Another initial lure of working with a commercial open-source vendor is the low cost of entry--since the product is ostensibly free. However, the services and support that commercial open-source vendors provide is essential to helping the client get started. Once the client goes down this services and support road, however, they face the challenges described above (they've deviated from the source) and now they're even more dependent on the vendor for services, support and add-ons.
Another negative is the fact that there is no real accountability if something goes wrong. Who do you turn to if there is a major problem with the product? Can you go back to the community to get the bug fixed? Possibly, but you're likely not going to get a resolution very quickly. Can you go back to the vendor? Perhaps--unless they're also waiting for the same fix from the open source community. This sort of bottleneck actually happens quite frequently in the commercial open-source market: the same bug exists within the commercial open source as does the main open source project. The customer can't get their situation resolved by the vendor, because the vendor is waiting for the community to fix the problem--with the sense of urgency of a more or less voluntary community.
Therefore, the fact that services and add-ons still have to be paid, plus the uncertainty of how the project will be supported in case something goes wrong often makes open-source BI risk.
On-demand BI (as well as software as a service or SaaS) is another model that has become popular in recent years. The way it works is by offering some of the benefits of BI without the hassles of hosting an application in-house. In other words, the vendor keeps, hosts and manages the application, while the client uses and pays for the application on demand through the Web. There is a whole host of companies that have specialized in on-demand business intelligence solutions or components, and, like open-source BI, on-demand has become a viable alternative to more traditional models.
The drawbacks of on-demand BI stem primarily from three factors. Firstly, the greatest majority of them are not targeted either for the smaller company within the mid-market spectrum, nor for the larger one. The smaller company can be just as well served by free BI--let's remember that on-demand BI is not free--while the larger one is better poised to acquire, refine and maintain in-house BI applications.
Then, to quote analyst Boris Evelson, "BI is still an art much more than a science. It still takes an army of consultants to pull it together, and whether I'm hosting [BI] somewhere in the cloud or doing it in-house, I'm still going to go through exactly the same difficulties. And as long as I'm doing that, why would I want to release--or lose control over--my BI installation to a third party vendor?"
And lastly, there is the issue of safety. Putting critical data and sensitive information in someone else's hands and outside of the company's own firewalls, as is the case for a solution hosted in the cloud, is not something that all firms are willing to do, which is not hard to understand.
Traditional legacy BI
By definition, traditional legacy BI is ill-suited to all but the largest among midsize firms. This is because, as we have mentioned, it grew out of the needs, the budgets and the timelines of blue-chip companies.
Aside from the huge expense associated with buying, implementing, maintaining and upgrading traditional legacy BI, there are a host of other issues that make these solutions less than ideal for the mid-market.
The many mergers and acquisitions that these companies have undergone in recent years mean that much of their product offering is technologically heterogeneous (at best) and uncertain (at worst). Of the tens of disparate BI products offered by some of the legacy firms, which ones will run on the same technological platform? Which will force the client's IT department to implement, learn and maintain products borne of radically different philosophies? And most importantly, which will still be supported by the vendor next year--and how can the client know before he buys?
Another drawback is that the prevalent licensing model for legacy BI is user-based. This means that if the midsize firm wants BI to be truly pervasive--as it should be--there will be a substantial cost.
But there is another BI model that is much better suited to the mid-market firm than all of the ones we have just mentioned.
Dynamic Web-based BI
Perhaps the best fit for midsize firms are dynamic, Web-based BI tools offered by vendors that have been specializing since their inception on this kind of software. The main differences between this model and those we have just discussed are:
- The solutions are ready out of the box, unlike open-source BI. And although they offer several degrees of customization, they are much more predictable (in the good sense of the word) as to what they can do and what they will look like once implemented
- The solutions are modular, meaning that a company can buy only as much BI as they need, unlike some of the legacy-BI solutions
- The solutions allow companies to host and own their own BI application, unlike with on-demand BI products.
The advantages of these newer, Web-based BI solutions are many--especially for the mid-market.
Easy to get started - From pricing to connection to set up, the better Web-based BI solutions save companies time and money. They do not require multiple consulting trips, and they can easily connect to one or more of the most common data sources that a midsize firm is likely to use--from databases to Web services to flat files. In some cases, these vendors have their solutions available for free-trial download, so the decision-maker in the midsize firm can test the solution with his company's own data and evaluate it against the backdrop of his own technological architecture and real-life issues.
Easy to use - Solutions that were born to run on the Web--and are not adaptations--have the easy feel and navigability of the Internet. This is advantageous to both the report developer, who can prepare feature-rich, dynamic reports with little coding and using a wizard-driven development approach, and to the end-user, who will find reporting and analysis intuitive. In turn, this will benefit adoption: if the solution is adopted enthusiastically by as many users as possible, decision-making will become more efficient and (ultimately) the firm will become more competitive.
Powerful and interactive - BI companies that were sufficiently forward-thinking ten years ago to bet all their chips on Internet technology are often the ones that introduce or are quickest to adopt the features that are truly useful. For this reason--and without departing from their easy-to-use philosophy--these BI vendors offer features like interactive dashboards, powerful visualization tools like heat maps and GIS maps with drill-down and drill-through capability, animated charts and graphs, intuitive OLAP analysis and user-driven ad-hoc reporting.
Complete and modular - Midsize firms (indeed all firms) should not be forced to buy more BI than they need or to settle for less for fear of buying too much. The key to their ability to buy just as much as they need is in the modular nature of the solutions offered by vendors. For instance, a company that has only a moderate amount of data and whose users share similar requirements may just need a managed reporting solution and should not be forced to buy a product that incorporates ETL, data marts or a data warehouse.
Conversely, one that has complex data and many users with different needs can explore the possibility of acquiring a whole platform, as long as it's complete, it's technologically unified and it features components optimized for different tasks--such as, for instance, managed reporting, ad-hoc reporting and ETL/data integration. In this sense, the components of a good Web-based platform lend themselves to being points along a firm's growth in size and data complexity--meaning that the company can get only what it needs now, and may plan on getting more BI in the future as data volumes and operations grow.
A good value - This point is easy to dismiss as intuitive--but it's all but. Value is the ratio between benefits gained compared to effort required. Failing to measure either one right from the onset is why so many BI projects fail--either because, down the road, they yield no strategic value, or because they require too much effort for the benefits they bring. So, let's start with value. A BI solution is valuable when it allows a firm to reach its strategic goals more efficiently. It does so by making data easily available, easily processed, easily understood and easily acted upon. It does so when it sifts through the white noise of less-than-critical information and pinpoints a vital action that a decision-maker must take. It does so through tools like KPIs, dashboards, automated alerts, meaningful visualization and analysis tools. And the main points of effort for a BI solution are upfront costs, IT costs, maintenance costs, licensing costs and upgrade costs. Good Web-based BI solutions bring value by offering the midsize firm all the benefits I've listed; while minimizing the effort required--through being much less expensive and resource-intensive, and through being licensed to empower as many users as a firm needs without per-user fees.
March 8, 2009
The Most Useful Reporting Tools in BI
Here's a quick list of the most useful reporting tools in business intelligence.
1 - The data table. At its most basic, this reporting tool presents a series of columns--for instance, showing order numbers, quantity, salesmen's names, customer names and customer address. The data table, of course, becomes more useful when the columns are sortable, and can get even more sophisticated when data groupings are performed.
2 - The cross-tab table. This is essentially the same tool as the data table, with the addition of a series of rows that determines the first dimension of the table. In our example above, a cross-tab table would (for instance) have rows on the left each corresponding to a salesman's name. For each salesman, the columns would display order number, quanity, customer name and customer address.
3 - The pie, bar and/or line charts. As far as reporting tools go, these may sound quite basic. However, their usefulness should not be taken for granted. A pie chart is great to show percentage distributions, and it is more impactful with a moderate number of "slices" (or else it can become confusing). The bar chart is generally used either to compare discrete quantities (e.g. showing salesmen on the X axis and their sales on the Y axis) or to track a moving quantity overtime (e.g. showing years on the X axis and total sales on the Y axis). The line chart is a similar reporting tool as the last example of use of the bar chart.
In the race to produce newer, swankier BI features, vendors should always consider that these basic reporting tools are often the ones on which users base the highest number of their decisions (which is why Excel is still so popular).