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January 29, 2009

The Must-haves of Dashboard Software

OK, we've all heard the cliche'. Dashboard software and IT dashboards are the new face of BI. But as you recall from the first time you met your mother-in-law, a new face is not necessarily a friendly face. For a face to be affable--and for a dashboard to be friendly to your business--there are a few requisites that need to be in place.

Or let's look at it from another angle. Some think that a corporate dashboard has magical properties. It's like a business talisman: just get it and in no time your mug will be simpering pompously from the cover of Forbes magazine. No, I didn't think so either.

Truth is, a business intelligence dashboard is not all that different from the dashboard in your car. To be useful, it must make you drive better, keep you comfortable and tell you when you're running out of gas, but without distracting you. Now that we're done with the similes, let's look at the top-five do's and don'ts of dashboard implementation to make sure your dashboard doesn't end up looking like the face of the last cop who pulled you over... oops, there I go again.

Before I pull more analogies out of my hat, here's a link to a very good white paper on dashboards, written by Swiss analyst Gabriel Fuchs. Anyway, here goes:

Do 1: Let the Dashboard Be Business-driven and Focused
Ask yourself: what competitive goals are you trying to achieve through this tool? What specific processes are you trying to make more efficient? What critical information are you trying to make more readily available and why? Be ruthlessly specific. The more surgically you zero in on precise tactics, the better your chance to achieve your strategy.

Example: you want the inventory of the top-10 SKUs to always remain optimal, so that you're not out of goods while never getting overstocked. You set up a dashboard that shows this information in intuitive eyeful--in graphic form and of course in real time.

Don't make the dashboard into a less unprofessional version of solitaire. Too much freedom and too little focus, and your users will spend time on it for entertainment with your BI investment going to waste.

Do 2: Let the KPI Be Your Friend
What's a KPI? It's a key performance indicator--a handy little color-coded dot or gauge that "indicates" if your "key" items are "performing" well or if they're headed for the dogs. Set a threshold (e.g. minimum month-to-date sales) for the critical items; when you're on the good side of the threshold, the KPI shows you a green dot--all A-OK. When you're on the wrong side of the threshold, the KPI turns red--time to take action.

Example: so you want to have an optimal in-stock level of your top 10 SKUs. Have 10 KPIs that alert you without even having to read numbers. Green: all is going well. Red: either too much or too little inventory.

Don't Don't turn your dashboard into the single-screen version of those darned multiple-sheet Excel tables, where you have to sort through more figures than an IRS goon (no offense to IRS goons) just to see if you're making your numbers. Use eye-friendly KPIs when possible.

Do 3: Make Your Dashboard Actionable
The thermostat in your car reads 38 degrees. Great. Does knowing that make you any warmer? Not unless you can plonk the temp-control lever all the way to red. Get it? Without being able to act on what you see, a dashboard is as useful as than the morning paper. Give yourself the power to see the information, understand what it means to your goals and act on it without leaving the application.

Example: one of your inventory-level KPIs is red. Time to reorder. Instead of leaving the application, looking up the vendor, entering another program and placing the order, you just click on the "reorder" button right from your dashboard. Voila'.

As you implement BI, don't foster a culture of "knowers." Foster one of "doers." Remember that it's actions that impact the bottom line, and that knowledge is only the prerequisite.

Do 4: It's a Web, Web World, although...
With the Web taking over the world of BI, it's become chic to malign desktop applications. Yes, having dashboards on the Web is almost essential today, making it easier to access them, share them and work on them from virtually anywhere. However, the best Web-based dashboard software still retains the features of a desktop application--flexible, easy to use, powerful, interactive, with that "dedicated" feel to them.

Example: you should be able to move your panels around without refreshing the screen (thanks to technologies like AJAX), plus drill down, drill through and have eye-candy like Flash-powered charts and graphs.

Don't set up a Web-based dashboard that looks and feels like an Internet site from 10 years ago--a static, read-only specie that we should push to extinction with the same collective determination as we did the mullet and the Pee Wee Herman show.

Do 5: Make Dashboard Software Available to Everyone
Us BI industry insiders may not realize it, but it's still out there. That culture where reporting and analysis is the domain of a few techies or upper management. For it to be useful, dashboard software should be available to every decision-maker in your company. And if you are smart about the way you manage your people, most your employees should be treated as decision makers.

Example: there's no reason why your warehouse managers, your HR personnel, all your sales-force and your finance department (to name but a few), should not have access to dashboards making their jobs more efficient.

Don't end up paying through the nose for tens of user's licenses, or worse yet, tens of user's licenses that end up unused because of failed adoption. Shop for a vendor that allows you to deploy dashboards to unlimited users--e.g. through a server-based licensing model.

In Summary
In the end, remember that the dashboard is just a tool. The easier it is to use, and the more directly it makes your employers' life easier, the more it will be adopted. And the more it is adopted, the more positively it will impact your business.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 8:30 AM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2009

The Six Points of Effort in Business Intelligence Software

Small and medium-sized companies who evaluate the purchase of a business intelligence software solution worry about the effort required. However, decision-makers completely new to BI often have a slightly distorted view of what effort really is--specifically, of what exactly the element or points of effort are. With a better understanding of these factors, the decision-making process will be smoother and more informed.

So, which are the points of effort in business intelligence software implementation? The main ones are six:

1 - Upfront costs, or the costs the vendor charges for the software
2 - IT architecture costs, for example, a new database or data warehouse if required
3 - IT man-hours in setting up the application and building the reports
4 - Licensing costs, since most BI vendors still license by the number of users
5 - Training for the end-users
6 - Hidden costs or future costs, for example, maintenance costs or cost of upgrading to a new version of the software

If the decision maker uses these parameters to evaluate a BI vendor, it will be much easier to quantify the value of a solution and to project ROI in the short, medium and long term.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 2:15 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2009

Why Web-based Business Intelligence Software?

In the last few years, there has been a race towards web-based business intelligence software. Legacy BI companies that had started out with desktop applications started to slowly adapt their product to the web, while numerous upstart BI companies popped up whose mission was to provide the market with web-based BI solutions built from scratch. Is there a reason why desktop BI applications became near-obsolete in favor of web-based solutions?

There are several, but with a few caveats.

First of all, there is the issue of accessibility. With a web-based BI solution, users are not tied to their office PC or even to their laptop computer. With the better web-based solutions on the market, all users need to access their reports is a device featuring Internet connection. This frees them to move around, travel, visit clients, etc., while having complete access to real-time data.

Then, a web-based solution has easy, familiar navigation. Unless your users have lived in a cave for the past ten or so years (no reference to arch-villains real or imaginary), they will be familiar with the Internet. And accessing their web-based reports and dashboards will be as familiar to them as surfing the web, finding reviews of their favorite restaurants or getting directions on Google Maps or Mapquest. In other words, a web-based solution is much less intimidating, especially to nontechnical users.

Also, a web-based solution created from scratch will have all its components running on the same technology, which we call in BI jargon a "unified BI platform." The caveat here is that there are actually precious few web-based solutions that were in fact created from scratch to run on the web on the same technology. For the ones that are, the benefits are very obvious: IT has to get familiar with a single model that will work similarly for different solutions (e.g. managed reporting, ad hoc reporting, ETL, etc.). Conversely, a web-based solution that is a mish-mash of different technologies forces IT to go in different directions to maintain the different platform components, resulting in more expense and inefficiency.

Also, the better web-based reporting solutions are much easier to upgrade when new releases are introduced by the vendor. In some cases, the vendor sends the upgrade automatically over the web, and you don't have to recreate or manually update any of your reports. This works just like when, say, Mozilla Firefox (my personal browser of choice, also because I dig the name) sends out a new release--all you have to do is click on "yes" and you have the new version with all your cookies, bookmarks and favorites saved.

So are there any drawbacks to web-based reporting and analysis solutions? Well, it depends. The much-maligned desktop applications did have something going for them: that feel of a dedicated tool, powerful and flexible and optimized for the purpose for which it was intended. Some of the less sophisticated web-based applications kind of make you miss that. However, the better ones give the interactivity and the flexibility of a desktop application, while incorporating all the advantages of web-based reporting that I have just listed.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 9:30 AM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2009

Avoid the Dragonfly's Sting: The Importance of the BI Licensing Model

Surf the web for prices of business intelligence solutions, and you'll find something is almost always constant: end-user license fees.

I look at end-user license fees as being like dragonflies: throwbacks to another geological era that somehow have survived to our times and become so commonplace as to not even warrant a double-take. Why am I saying this? Let me explain.

User license fees make very much sense--in case of a desktop software. Ever bought a copy of Adobe Photoshop? The company releasing the software has to charge by the individual download, or else they would be in the charity business. In the geoogical era when all BI solutions were desktop, therefore, this licensing model was perfectly logical.

However, in this millennium things have changed, or at least they should have. Business intelligence software now runs on the web--you know, that nifty little invention by Al Gore that allows people to stay in touch in real time through email, to read the news as they develop without running to the corner-store and buy the latest edition... That wonderfully democratic tool, that allows Joe Sixpack to leave a comment on a Wall Street Journal article and have it appear in seconds for thousands to read... Or Jane Sixpack to leave a nasty review of that restaurant where she was forced to push back not one but two orders of under-done salmon... Yes, that web.

So, while business intelligence vendors have tripped all over themselves and each-other to create the best and brightest web-based BI application--with megatonic dashboards, zingamorama visualization features, hubba-bubba drill-down and drill-through and automatic alerts that stop just short of giving you a morning wakeup call and bringing you a steaming cup of Java--they still license as if they sold that tired old desktop application.

And companies buying BI seem to not have noticed.

The cost of the dragonfly's sting
The sad part is not only how much companies end up spending upfront to enable more end-users to enjoy the benefits of web-based BI. This is bad enough--and somehow, it feels undemocratic. The even sadder part is that, in the real world, BI adoption is something slow and patchy. Not all users get quite as comfortable as quickly as others--while others yet just let the application languish on their desktop, unused, in favor of good old Excel.

What happens then? All the money wasted on unused, underused or partially used licenses is as well chucked out the winder. But to the vendor, that's no concern at all--he's sold you his dragonfly, you've bought it, now it has stung you, your bad.

So, let's fast forward to the Holocene (for those of you geologically-impaired, that's today's time). And let's look at some of the benefits of web-based business intelligence software, the most obvious of which is its being so democratic--all you need is a URL and voila', you're in business.

Why on Earth should you pay for a web-based product as if it was a desktop application? Do I hear crickets? (Or worse yet, dragonflies?)

The evolutionary cusp: server-based BI licensing
In today's web-based world (pardon the cliche'), the only business intelligence licensing model that makes sense is server-based.

You pay for the number of servers and/or processors you get, and then you distribute BI to as many users as you need and that the server can support--with no user fees. This is a much more web-like way to charge, and a much better value for most companies who take the time to actually shop for a convenient, modern BI solution instead of going with the living fossils.

With this server-based licensing model, you have several advantages:

- No wasted money on failed adoption
- A better opportunity to empower more users without paying through the nose
- More flexibility in terms of who gets BI--you don't have to make a decision before buying and then sticking to it
- In the case of an OEM or software manufacturer who embeds BI, a world of financial advantage and quicker ROI

So, when you shop for a BI solution, don't resign yourself to the fact that user fees are something inevitable. They are not. Check out companies that charge server-based, and avoid the sting of the user-fees dragonfly.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 7:45 AM | Comments (4)

January 14, 2009

What makes value in business intelligence software?

When I think of value, I think of a see-saw. How much you can leverage on the other side using as little weight as possible determines value. Doing or getting much with little effort is good value, while the opposite constitutes, well, the opposite.

When we look at business intelligence solutions, what constitutes good value? To answer this question, we need to look at what's at either end of the "see-saw." On one side, what are we trying to get? On the other, what are the measurable kinds of effort required to get it?

What we want in business intelligence software
In the simplest terms, the "goods" in business intelligence solutions are nothing but the tools to see, understand and act upon corporate data. All other things being equal, the more sophisticated and powerful the tools, the more valuable the application.

The points of effort required in business intelligence
The other side of the equation, there are three main points of effort.

1 - Cost of ownership for the BI application
2 - Licensing costs
3 - Setup effort, measured in man hours and opportunity cost

Determining the value of a BI solution entails a careful balancing of these variables. Any decision maker evaluating business intelligence who does not have a clear picture of this is going at it with one boot off.

I will delve deeper into each of these points in the next few days.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 11:45 AM | Comments (1)

January 9, 2009

Is Reporting Performance Poor? Boost It with a Few Simple Actions

If you're a report developer, and you hear that the performance of your reports is poor--slow, cumbersome, inaccurate, etc.--there are some tools in your control to make it better.

Reporting performance depends on two categories of things--one environmental, one under your control as a developer. This post is a summary of a very informative white paper on reporting performance.

Environmental reporting performance factors.
These are the ones people usually think of when reporting performance is not up to par.

Hardware (CPU/RAM). The more robust a hardware solution, the better the overall report performance will be.

Network bandwidth. Connectivity to the reporting server will play a large role in how responsive each report request will be.

Operating system and database platform. The main factors are the overall file management performance and data load performance, and the connectivity to the database.

Number of concurrent users. As with most web-based applications, user load shows a linear growth when it comes to response times.

Data schema. Complexity of the database or data source schema will affect performance.

Data Volume. Columns, rows and size/type of data value can burden your processor.

Report definition complexity. The number of elements and attributes in a report will affect loading time, just like the more information a web page requests, the longer it will take to load.

Performance factors in the developer's control
Now, here are the good news. Although the factors just mentioned are in general outside of the developer's control, there are elements within a web application model that depend (at least in part) from the developer, who can therefore affect reporting performance.

Interactive paging. This allows the server to only load the proper amount of data and not become burdened, while letting the users view the information they request.

Drill down, drill-through (on-demand data). Besides being beneficial to the end-user, these features make the report faster and more efficient, lightening the reporting load by given only the current state of requested data.

Reusing elements. Reusing or sharing elements within a report allows for more complex reporting environments without adding burden to the server.

Dashboard visualization. With a dashboard, the user gets only the information he needs, while the load on the system will be lighter. Also, dashboards present grouped data, aggregations, KPIs, etc., further compounding the technical benefits.

These are only the main factors affecting reporting performance that are under the developer's control. To learn even more about this topic, there is a performance factors white paper that delves more specifically into this subject.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 12:15 PM | Comments (0)

January 2, 2009

How Web-based Charting Software Helps Business Decisions

A good Web based charting software is to the business intelligence (BI) decision-maker what a reliable GPS system is to a driver. Yesterday's charts and graphs are like a static map: they only tell you one thing, and you can't ask them additional questions. Conversely, an advanced Web-based charting software lets you analyze the information presented in different ways--always visually--but with a level of depth and creativity unheard of until a few years ago. In other words, today's best charts and graphs can help your competitiveness--if you don't use them, you can bet your competitors do.

In the see-understand-act flow of BI, any feature or tool that compresses this three-part flow and puts more emphasis on the "understand so you can act" part gives more value. That's why, for instance, an actionable KPI gives the decision maker more value than the same information presented in a table.

Here is a brief overview of items that make a charting software more helpful to the business decision-maker.

Drill-down and drill-through capability. You are the sales manager, and a Web-based bar graph shows you year-to-date sales by rep. A versatile Web-based charting software will let you click on a salesman's bar and see, for instance, the breakdown of revenue by product line (drill down) or a report showing all the relevant sales metrics pertaining to that rep (drill through). Through the immediate and easy navigation of the Web, this will only take a few clicks and will offer you a focused way to ask the chart questions and receive answers.

Ability to display data in different ways. Not all data is the same. Not all data lends itself to asking it the same questions. A pie chart is often best to display percentages. A bar chart discrete quantities. A line chart progress overtime. But a good Web-based charting software will give you much more than this. For example, it will offer you the possibility to display your data in a heat map or even a geographic map, each of which has tremendous benefits.

Sizzle and persuasive power. Data does not have to be presented in a boring way. Visual impact can make the difference between a lost opportunity and a deal won. With point and moderation, for instance, a Flash-animated chart or graph can give your report the sizzle you need to be more persuasive and impress your clients or colleagues in ways that will do your business good. A good Web-based charting software will give you possibilities like this, as well as the means to easily customize the look and feel of your charts and graphs to the message you are trying to convey.

Ability to analyze data from the chart itself. A chart tells you the "what." To understand the "why" or the "what if?" you will need to analyze the information presented. A good charting software will let you do this from the chart itself, without forcing you to go back to the underlying table. Web-based features like interactive data viewers give you precisely this type of capability: perform different kinds of calculations, find statistically-meaningful numbers behind your data, view hypothetical scenarios at a glance--all displayed in graphic format.

These are only a few of the capabilities you should expect from a good Web-based charting software. Ease of use, reliable connection to data from different data sources and flexible personalization are of course among other basic requirements, but we will delve into these points in a future post.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 10:30 AM | Comments (2)

The 5 Essential Web-based Reporting Tools

A lot of CIOs or CEOs who consider their first Web-based business intelligence (BI) purchase make the mistake of thinking that business intelligence is an all-or-nothing proposition. Buy everything the vendor says you need, or keep using Excel for another year. This is naturally a false dilemma.

With business intelligence solutions becoming increasingly commoditized and "modular" (get which components you need and leave out the rest), CIOs and CEOs have more choices now than ever.

What we call business intelligence is nothing but the efficient way to turn data into actionable items. See efficiently, understand efficiently, act efficiently--this is (or should be) the flow of BI. In theory, you can see, understand and act with nothing but a green-bar report, a calculator and a phone. But in practice, a firm that wants to be competitive needs to have tools that offer a much higher level of efficiency.

Here are the essential business intelligence tools that will make tangible difference even in the short run.

(BTW, LogiXML has an excellent white paper on the 12 essential tools in business intelligence--and it's free for download.)

1 - Web-based dashboard software. Having the metrics that count all in one Web screen accessible from anywhere is invaluable in today's business. However, the rule should be followed that, on an IT dashboard, decision-makers should have "the essentials, all the essentials and nothing but the essentials." An uncluttered dashboard that contains the most critical metrics is a shortcut to competitive success.

2 - Web-based ad-hoc reporting. In a smart company, no two employees have the same exact duties. Therefore, giving each employee the ability to create his own ad-hoc reports as reflected by their unique tasks becomes a great strength. There are two kinds of ad-hoc reporting capability that a firm can contemplate: ad-hoc reporting proper and ad-hoc-like capability in a managed reporting solution. With a good Web-based managed reporting solution, the second can give the end-user enough flexibility to conduct his own reporting and analysis without going all the way with a true ad-hoc reporting software.

3 - Actionable KPIs. This Web-based scorecarding feature may be part of a dashboard (or even an ad-hoc dashboard). But the ability to view critical thresholds and act on them at the click of a mouse is paramount. For instance, as you see that your top-selling SKU has dropped below a certain in-stock threshold, the application should offer you the possibility to place a reorder without leaving the screen. See, understand and act efficiently.

4 - Automatic report scheduling and alerts. While it's great to have the possibility to create and modify reports at will, it's even more effective when key reports are generated automatically on a scheduled basis. For example, your whole sales force should have a sales report prepared and emailed to them automatically every day. This will arm them with the necessary knowledge before they even make their first call. Alerts have similar benefits, but are even more pointed: I view them like a KPI that comes to you when action is needed. When a threshold is crossed, you are proactively alerted by the application, so that you minimize the chances of missing it.

5 - Advanced visualization tools. Humans are visual animals. Yes, we can analyze numbers as a matter of course, but there's nothing more impactful than a simple color-coded visualization tool that informs you of certain aspects of your business. Features like Web-based heat maps, animated charts and graphs, geographic maps--all with drill-down and drill-through capability--are efficient means of both understanding your data and persuading colleagues and clients.

If I was a small or medium-sized business entrepreneur, these are the essentials with which I would arm my company. Sure, there are lots more features that are both technologically "sexy" and useful, but the steepest part of the return curve ends--in my opinion--with these five tools. As a last caveat, make sure that whatever Web-based reporting, analysis and dashboard application you get is also easy to connect, easy to build and use, since in today's economy, drawn-out, complicated projects are especially dangerous and costly.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 9:15 AM | Comments (0)