The history of the human race is really a story about the development of tools. Everything from the invention of fire and the wheel, all the way up to mobile smart devices—have allowed humans to become the dominant species of planet earth. And just as our ancestors made use of tools to improve their own chances of survival, our reliance on tools continues to play key role on how well we thrive in the modern world, with a focusing aspect on business. But while technology continues to evolve and advance, the most-valuable tool to today’s industry leaders is actually something much more abstract: information.
Information is the tool of infinite uses; it’s used to make decisions, identify audiences, diagnose effectiveness of past and on-going campaigns, forecast future trends, and much more. However, before information can be put to good use, it requires the use of other tools. Often, these tools are collectively referred to as business intelligence (BI).
Business intelligence tools are programs that are designed to be able to capture, analyze, report on, and potentially even act upon raw business data. These tools can take many forms, from simple spreadsheets, to advanced reports, to data-mining programs and visually-intensive dashboards, and beyond. In short, BI comprises any tool that is designed to enhance data usability.
But for those business leaders and decision makers who really want to take their organizations to the next level of success, BI means something more. These are BI tools that are designed to offer all-in-one solutions to data-related tasks, and as such, are generally more involved (and more expensive to implement) than the average spreadsheet. But with increased cost comes the potential for increased profit; research by Nucleus shows that for every dollar spent on business intelligence, an average of $10.66 is earned.
When it comes to business, you really can’t put a price on being properly informed. BI tools, on the other hand, can be priced, as well as evaluated and compared to determine which specific tool is the best fit for a particular organization. And while every organization has different particular needs and focuses, there are certain features that have become industry standard, and other features which should be, but aren’t. The most critical features to look for in a BI solution are high-volume data mining ability, broad compatibility, and intuitive accessibility. Understanding these features, as well as their importance for ongoing business success, can make it easier to choose a BI solution that can make the most of the valuable data that businesses are so intent on capturing.
When a dataset includes only a few pieces of information, then there’s really not much need for computerized assistance in organizing and extrapolating it. But when the data being processed numbers in the terabyte range, then the only way to make heads or tails of it is through the use of BI tools. As such, these tools need to be designed to operate at peak efficiency, even when faced with unfathomably-large amounts of raw data. If the tool in question is unable to effectively store or analyze large amounts of information without being bogged down by the process, then it probably isn’t one that can be trusted to handle the data on which a company will be basing its future actions. This is true even for small businesses; a BI tool that is effective for small amounts of data, but that is not designed to scale for growth will ultimately have to be replaced once the small business expands beyond its initial confines.
Speaking of growth, there are very few businesses that are able to establish effective, complete processes right from the beginning, and then retain those same processes in their initial from throughout the life of the business. Instead, businesses processes tend to change and grow along with the business itself, leading to many businesses relying on a number of different systems and platforms for the various data-related tasks that need to be performed. Superior business intelligence tools are those that are designed with this issue in mind, and are capable of tapping data from almost any existing system. This allows for users at all levels to more-quickly and easily adopt the BI tool, without having to redesign the entire data-infrastructure of the organization to accommodate it.
BI tools that are cloud-based offer further advantages. By removing the need for inhouse, local hardware or software, these tools make it possible for users to access full BI functionality in its entirety from any internet-enabled device, including mobile. This not only cuts down on initial costs associated with implementation, but also allows for better collaboration between departments.
Given how diverse the various tasks associated with BI are, it’s no surprise that many powerful BI tools have a tendency to become too complex for their own good. When users approach a BI tool, they need to be able to quickly grasp not only its capabilities, but also the interface through which they will be utilizing those capabilities. Many BI tools simply don’t make this a focus, which causes employee adoption-rates to plummet. In fact, average BI tool adoption-rates tend to hover around 20%, leaving approximately 80% of a company unwilling to commit. To combat this, the learning-curve associated with utilizing a BI tool needs to be as simple as its data is complex.
Some BI tools approach this problem by offering built-in tutorial programs that new users can take advantage of to quickly become accustomed. Likewise, direct support channels, such as telephone and online live-chat make it possible for users to resolve control issues as they arrive. Going above and beyond these solutions, some tools also offer community connectivity, where users can come together to crowd-source solutions to potentially-unique problems. However, accessibility goes beyond simplicity of use; the data being analyzed likewise needs to be presented in a way that is easy to understand at a glance, but that can be elaborated upon for a more-detailed look at specific information. To this end, most business intelligence reporting tools offer some form of interactive data visualization options.
Data visualization takes the numbers representing the BI tool’s findings, and displays them graphically, usually through charts, tables, graphs, or other visual media. Interactive data visualization then gives users the option to further explore the real-time data that makes up these graphical representations. But while data visualization is certainly not a unique feature among BI tools, the extent by which data can be viewed, inspected, and manipulated in a graphical setting can help businesses determine which BI tool is likely to be the most-effective option.
There are nearly as many BI solutions available on the market as there are businesses who might need them. As such, the cost associated with implementing BI ranges across the entire board. Some BI options offer free (though limited) use, while others require a major ongoing financial commitment. But despite the fact that BI is recognized as being a very sound investment, one should still see what’s available before committing to something that’s going to drain company resources. Tools that offer free trial periods are very useful, in that they make it possible to get a feel for a tool’s effectiveness, without spending money on what might be the wrong solution. And when one considers that it is estimated that the BI and analytics tool market will grow to reach $20 billion by 2019, it makes sense to be willing to shop around.
Data truly is the tool of infinite uses, but without the right BI solution to turn that data into actionable insights, it then becomes the tool of infinite uselessness. Business intelligence tools give organizations the the power to turn raw, unstructured data into something that can change the course of business history. After all, data is the future of business, and with the right business intelligence reporting tools, that future is one of unmeasured possibilities.