Let’s face it: When it comes to business intelligence (BI), a lot of organizations today are mouse hunting with an elephant gun.
An elephant gun means recruiting and training a team of database specialists to manage the ETL (extract, transform and load) and BI reporting process. It means writing a seven-figure check out of a capital expenditure budget to customize and deploy a full-scale, enterprise-wide BI solution. It also means a lot of waiting, even once implementation has been completed.
A mouse gun, on the other hand, means using a simplified web interface that accesses operational data in real time and enables business users to simply drag and drop to customize reports and dashboards to get the information they need, when they need it.
This Deep Dive analyst report focuses on the fundamental differences between these two very different approaches to business intelligence. It examines some of the trade-offs and benefits, based on the experiences of hundreds of companies. It also offers examples of how three very different types of organizations have achieved success using Agile BI tools.
Gleanster uses 2-3 key perfor- mance indicators (KPIs) to distinguish “Top Performers” from all other companies (“Everyone Else”) within a given data set, thereby establish- ing a basis for benchmarking best practices. By definition, Top Perform- ers are comprised of the top quartile of qualified survey respondents (QSRs).
The KPIs used for distinguishing Top Performers focus on performance metrics that speak to year-over-year improvement in relevant, measur- able areas. Not all KPIs are weighted equally. The KPIs used for this
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Some of the largest and most preemi- nent BI solution providers today are creating a lot of noise about big data. They’re spending boatloads of money trying to convince the marketplace that the best BI solution is a big data solution. They’re making the case that, regardless of the size of the operation or its actual data requirements, organiza- tions are well-advised to implement a system that can manage data at an enormously large scale.
Their efforts are paying off, with a growing number of organizations persuaded that they will fail to achieve optimal results without investing in such a system. But is there truth in advertis- ing? Is the increasing volume and scope of data that is becoming available to organizations reason enough to pull the trigger on what to many of them is a prohibitively expensive and time- consuming initiative?
The incessant talk these days about big data in the context of business intelligence is understandable. The unprecedented growth and massive proliferation of mobile, social, website, transactional and other data is having a profound impact on the evolution of data management tools, processes and infrastructures. To be sure, very large data sets can only be parsed, managed and analyzed using highly complex and sophisticated BI solutions designed expressly for that purpose. These solutions have allowed many companies, governments and other entities to catapult their BI activities to much higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Some organizations would be dead in the water without these solutions.
At the same time, it’s important to realize that most organizations are not managing data at the scale of a Fortune 100 behemoth like, say, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Amazon.com or Wal-Mart – which, for its part, logs more than a million customer transactions each hour and feeds information into 2.5 petabyte databases. While the high- volume data processing needs of these particular companies demand big data BI solutions supported by robust data management and infrastructure systems as well as specially-trained BI resource teams, the reality of the situation is that big data does not even factor into the equation for the vast majority of organizations in operation, and such solutions are overkill.
That’s not to discount the importance of business intelligence in organizations where big data doesn’t play a role. In truth, the BI function is no less critical for managing the day-to-day opera- tions and driving success in a midsize business, a nonprofit organization or an academic institution – a community college, for example, or even a large public university. Like their counterparts at the ExxonMobils, Amazons and Wal-Marts of the world, decision makers in these organizations need to be able to access data from multiple sources on an ongoing basis. That’s how they track and measure performance and generate actionable insights that drive year-over- year improvement.
But, again, with databases that likely consist of no more than a few million records, these organizations have no big data requirements. Why, then, try to sell them an over-engineered solution? Why force them to adopt complexity when they have no need for complexity? Despite the mantra of solution providers eager to capitalize on the enormous buzz surrounding big data, modern-day relational databases are perfectly suited to handling the volume of data that most organizations process on a daily basis. Running SQL queries against an average-size database can, in fact, yield enormous advantages compared to an ETL approach. Foremost among these advantages are speed and agility.
Agile BI is empow- ering users and driving integrated decision-making across the organiza- tion. The professional success of users, as well as the success of their employers, largely lies in their ability to gain rapid access to the data.
According to Gleanster research findings, almost nothing matters more when it comes to business intelligence than speed. In fact, the ability to gain continuous, on-demand reporting ranks as the number one reason that Top Performers are migrating toward Agile BI in the first place. Business users want to know what they can do right now to drive increased efficiency and effectiveness, not what they could have done two or three weeks ago, when they first submitted the request to integrate a new data source into the BI system. The acceleration of decision-making cycles speaks to the importance of simpler systems that can run against existing databases without the cost and effort that’s required with an ETL implementa- tion.
According to Gleanster research, Top Performers are able to achieve fast turnarounds for new data sources using Agile BI. In fact, 72% of companies identified as Top Performers are able to integrate a new data source within a week of their request, as shown in Figure 1. This speed-to-integration is not possible with a data warehousing or BI implementation team that has to go through a rigorous requirements gathering process before they even begin to think about importing data into a different system.
Of course, speed comes in different forms, including speed of implementa- tion. A state-of-the-art system that takes two years to architect, customize, and deploy will not do much good if the company goes out of business in the interim. Agile data sourcing, discovery and visualization tools lend themselves to faster results because they do not presume that every important business question has already been identified and made available in a report, fed by an integrated data warehouse optimized to answer only those specific questions.
Putting data and self-service BI tools in the hands of business users allows them to get immediate answers to their questions and respond more quickly to business change. Agile BI is empowering business users and driving integrated decision-making across the organization. The professional success of users, as well as the success of their employers, largely lies in their ability to gain rapid access to the data.
Agility is commonly defined as the ability to be quick and nimble. When it comes to business intelligence, agility speaks to the fact that business users no longer wish to be merely passive recipients of reporting output. Instead, they want to be able to personally drill into the details of any given report — and also generate new reports on the fly. They want to uncover the underlying trends and identify additional opportuni- ties that may possibly surface through data analysis and insights discovery.
In fact, according to Gleanster research, two-thirds of Top Performers cite the need to provide more flexible/ custom- ized views into the data a top reason to invest in Agile BI. Business users want to be able to generate reports on the fly and to do so on their own, without having to involve the IT organization if they can avoid it. Further, they want to be able to manipulate, interact with, and analyze the data at a granular level, which means deploying tools that enable ad hoc reporting and not just relying on static reports based on pre-defined parameters. These and other benefits of Agil BI are illustrated in Figure 2 and also in the three success stories that follow.
“Users are so much happier now. They don’t have to wait for programmers to generate a report.”
A good example of an organization that has realized the promise of Agile BI is McDaniel College, a private four-year liberal arts school in Westminster, Maryland, with a student enrollment that includes more than 1,600 undergradu- ates.
Until five years ago, McDaniel College relied on an administrative database software package for reporting. The functionality was very basic and rigid. Periodic reports informed the registrar’s office when a new student transferred or registered for a class and the bursar’s office when to send tuition bills. The reports helped the financial aid office track financial aid requests and the HR department manage job applications. And that was about it.
“The system loved to take information in,” recalls Cathy Brown, who serves as a data administrator. “But it didn’t generate any custom reports, which was a big problem. We were drowning in a sea of data, but we didn’t have any real information.”
The college considered various options. These included implementing a new system to create a larger number of standard canned reports and hiring programmers to develop custom reports. Instead, it elected to deploy a leading Agile BI solution that put data access into the hands of business users. The learning curve was short. “After sitting down and showing them
a few simple things, they were able to write their own reports and get to the data they needed,” says Brown.
Flexibility is a key value driver. To take a simple example, a secretary may need a report with students sorted in alphabetical order while a department chair may ask that it be organized by expected graduation date. Creating reports that accommodate both needs may not seem like a big deal, but Brown calls it revolutionary. “Users are so much happier now,” she says. “They don’t have to wait for programmers to generate a report.”
One important measure of success is the president’s level of satisfaction. “He used to have to wait two weeks into the semester just to find out the exact number of students enrolled here,” says Brown. He also had to wait to know exactly how much revenue was being generated. Now reports can cull data from multiple databases, including accounts receivable, the general ledger and student files, and provide an accurate revenue picture. The data can be segmented by different majors and different undergraduate programs. It can be segmented by Maryland versus out-of-state students. And so on.
Reports can also identify students at risk, by pinpointing a residential student who, for example, is late in turning in a room deposit. A report may show that the same student requested that a transfer be sent to other colleges. “We can watch for indicators and reach out to those students to find get more information and provide guidance and assistance.” Says Brown. “This also helps protect revenue.”
Dashboards that focus on key issues can be automatically refreshed. They can live on a page in the portal that is customizable by trustees only. According to Brown, Agile BI has changed dramatically the way IT works with different departments. “It’s really changed the whole relationship because they used to dread asking for a report,” says Brown. “They knew they would have to wait. They knew everyone was burdened.” Clearly, that’s no longer the case.
“Reporting flexibility is a key success factor.”
Hitech Systems develops emergency response software that helps public safety organizations, including law enforcement agencies, fire depart- ments, and EMS agencies, integrate their data operations. Dispatchers at 911 centers use the software. So do police officers in patrol cars. Hitech also handles records management for these organizations. Clients include Mexico City, which ranks as the second largest metropolitan area in the world.
Reporting flexibility is a key success factor. “It’s all about stats and numbers,” says Joe Riquelme, who serves as a sales engineer. “We pack our software with hundreds of reports, because public safety officials have to report to everybody, including the government. We’ve integrated hundreds of predefined reports.”
Even so, every public safety organiza- tion has unique reporting needs. “We could never develop every single report that everyone wants,” says Riquelme. “Different chiefs and sheriffs have different agendas and different informa- tion needs. We can’t develop a million custom reports.”
Two years ago, Hitech Systems integrated a leading Agile BI solution into its software, giving users the ability to easily develop custom reports on their own. “With a very intuitive interface, users can now easily create reports in their own environment,” says Riquelme. “Most public safety officials are doing ten jobs. They don’t have the time to learn complex tools.”
To achieve real performance improve- ment, it has to be easy to not only create reports but also to dissemination the reports to the right decision makers within the organization. “Reports are worthless if you can’t get them out to people that need to see them,” says Riquelme, who uses built-in tools to disseminate the reports via email and other vehicles, in multiple formats.
With law enforcement and public safety, in general, dashboards can literally save lives. The dashboards can provide tactical information that guides medical response, police rescue and other emergency operations. “They give you the ability to visually see the information and make decisive judgments,” says Riquelme. “You can see what types of calls for service are coming in, in what areas, what are the priorities. The information is fresh so you can respond to what’s going on now.”
Another advantage is the ability within the dashboard to embed other mission- critical information. “A lot of the value is in consolidating the work environ- ment, instead of going from screen to screen,” says Riquelme. “You can do queries within that same webpage. The user doesn’t even have to leave the dashboard screen to search on new data.”
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