The business environment is changing at a dizzying pace, driven by globalisation, virtualisation, outsourcing, and other factors. To compete, and indeed to survive, enterprises must increase their agility and adapt business processes to accommodate changing conditions.
Few can argue that the accuracy, timeliness and accessibility of information is absolutely critical to business success, yet many organisations still seem to struggle to achieve this.
Organisations operating in silos, using a variety of reporting tools from Excel spreadsheets to pen and paper, without a consistent platform, remain an all-too-common scenario. A fragmented approach of this kind is usually hugely ineffectual and, although done in the right spirit, can often cause more problems than it solves.
Business Intelligence (BI) technologies are often hailed as the answer - providing a consistent platform for the gathering, storing, analysing and provisioning of access to data. Advocates of BI claim it can deliver new and deeper insights into business operations and markets, leading to better, more informed decision making, greater efficiency and ultimately driving competitive advantage.
However, recent research from the National Computing Centre found that 87 per cent of BI projects in the UK do not live up to expectations and nearly a quarter go over budget.
Just as worrying, a fifth found that data failed to reveal important information and only half said that end users were satisfied with the system. So if BI really is the holy grail of organisational success, why are so many companies still getting it wrong - and what can they do to ensure that they get it right?
Strategy - the foundation of successful BI
Implemented correctly, an integrated BI deployment has the potential to provide significant organisational benefits. However, it is far too easy for organisations to get bogged down in the technology without properly considering the particular business need it is trying to address. To avoid this, and ensure a good foundation for BI adoption, a number of steps should be taken in advance.
The first of these should be a thorough review of the various business reporting practices across the organisation to systemise and structure the abundance of information produced.
As part of this review it is important to identify a number of factors, notably the level of usage of current reports across the business; the information needs at different levels of the organisation and the availability of relevant information.
It is also essential to define the definition of key performance indicators (KPIs), establish the workflow around business reporting and catalogue the IT systems currently used to produce data and business reports.
The success of any BI roll out is largely dependent on the integrity of the information it can access. Therefore, a sound data-management strategy will ensure that information is correct and as up to date as possible, and in line with business requirements.
A piecemeal approach to BI will never be successful. Senior buy-in and support at board level is of critical importance to delivering a sound, company-wide strategy that establishes good practice for the access of accurate data and ensures that KPIs are aligned with business objectives.
Platform - integration and customisation is key
Once a company-wide BI strategy is in place, the next step is to select the BI tool most appropriate for the needs of the business. The benefit of a centrally managed BI platform is that it enables improved and more efficient alignments of departmental goals - difficult to achieve when each department is using a selection of different tools and drawing their figures from different information sources.
The BI platform should be capable of integrating information from all functions in the organisation and categorising data into different layers to support organisational hierarchies. This will enable users to drill down into the level of detail that is relevant to them. The best BI tools will also enable users to manipulate reports to track and analyse their KPIs in relation to the overall performance of the organisation.
However, defining metrics and discovering and planning for information quality is meaningless unless delivered through a viable user interface. To maximise the business impact of any BI project, the user interface should be tailored to the unique needs of the various user groups.
Employees need information they can use immediately and understand readily, in a form that suits their requirements. Provided that usability is not treated as an afterthought, BI can empower users by enabling them to design reports and drill down as they require, conducting analysis to suit their individual needs.
If you cannot measure it, it doesn't exist
Companies that are successful with their BI initiatives take a hard look at how different people use information. As long as definitions of KPIs throughout the organisation are in place, it should be possible to establish reports designed to fit the information needs of the business.
By streamlining reporting and analysis across the organisation, BI makes it easier to get the right data into the system and distribute the relevant information to decision makers. This ensures processes are more efficient and less time consuming, and allows users to spend more time focusing on their core functions and strategy rather than being hindered by administrative tasks.
KPIs should be defined and aligned across the company for key functions. These KPIs can be made available to all managers in the organisation, in the format most relevant to them.
For example, the consulting manager can be presented with the utilisation KPI alongside other relevant consultation information, whereas the CFO can be presented with more top-level KPIs alongside figures about the status of the business. These KPIs can help keep reporting errors to a bare minimum.
Reports can also be used to see very easily which projects, departments and people consistently generate success and identify why this is helping the organisation, enabling managers to act quickly when KPIs look like they might not be met. Using BI reports and analysis, management can slice and dice information to pinpoint the root of both ongoing problems and successes.
For example, having identified that a certain group of consultants are under-servicing, it is obviously interesting to know what they have in common. Have they been working on the same projects? Do they have the same manager? Is it the customers that are unreasonable?
BI reports and analyses can also deliver a historical, integrated perspective of the organisation. By analysing historical trends and emerging patterns across the organisation, management has a greater chance of making more precise predictions about what could be the outcome of any decisions or actions.
Training - not just a one off
One of the common mistakes businesses make is not giving users appropriate training on the systems and technologies, reports and tools being used. To ensure BI practices create true business impact, users need to be trained and provided with ongoing support, so a company strategy that considers the technical ability of the users and includes ongoing training is crucial for success.
If not planned carefully, BI can be easy to get wrong, particularly if it is approached as a 'bolt on' or a requirement for a select few individuals. But get it right and a BI capability can be one of the most valuable assets in an organisation.
It is all a question of striking the right balance between best practice strategy implementation and usage as well as tools, platforms and applications. All these elements need to be carefully considered to ensure the successful roll out of any BI project.