How would you like your BI?

When Ford Motor Co. decided several years ago to take a different approach to reporting the money its dealerships spend on repairing automobiles under warranty, a standard report for a few company analysts at head office morphed into dashboards and portals for all frontline workers as well.

“The original report was used by a handful of people. This [new] dealership report was used by 60,000 people,” said Kevin Quin, vice-president of business intelligence with New York-based Information Builders Inc. The same information in a novel format, when disseminated to others, according to Quin, saved Ford Motor Co. tens of millions of dollars on a yearly basis.

Business intelligence was originally leveraged by power users like professional report authors and analysts, but now, trends in user preferences are emerging, said Leah MacMillan, vice-president of product marketing with Ottawa-based business intelligence technology vendor Cognos Inc. With the ever-growing demand for real-time decision-making, end-users no longer have time to wait for reports to be created for them. Instead, business intelligence is moving beyond those power users and becoming accessible to employees across the organization. With that, it’s important to recognize the different groups of users with varying preferences for business intelligence formats, in light of their roles and responsibilities.

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The executive, said MacMillan — the CEO, CFO or vice-president — is largely concerned with visibility into the business as a whole and being able to view the bigger picture. “Executives that we see are all concerned about financial performance and growth of the organization,” she said, adding that the preference is for an aggregate perspective of different reports of key business areas that will render an “at-a-glance view.”

The line of business manager, too, wants to see the bigger picture, but only for their specific area of the business. Such a person would be a regional sales manager, said MacMillan, who must remain abreast of regional performance, yet still be able to drill down a little further to get “simple, fast answers to their questions” to see, for instance, what sales representatives are working on and how they are doing.

The power user — the business or financial analyst — is what MacMillan calls the “critical user within BI deployment” because others in the organization have traditionally relied on them to dispense information. Power users are interested in the kind of detail that line of business managers are not, said MacMillan, like “the number of people buying potato chips while having a car wash.” These users, who either reside in IT or in the business, also depend on being able to perform “what-if” analyses on data.

Given these very different user types, it’s not surprising that certain report formats are best suited to particular groups of users given individual accountabilities.

At its most basic, business intelligence is distributed in the form of canned reports, typically automated and generated on a periodic basis, whether it’s daily, weekly or monthly. Beyond the automated cycles are ad-hoc reports for users who want to access information as needed.

Ad-hoc reports take several forms. Dashboards, for instance, are an interactive interface that presents user-specific data related to the health of the business. “The dashboard is just like a cardiogram,” saied Gareth Doherty, research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. The dashboard uses key performance indicators as metrics to measure the “vital signs” of the business, said Doherty, and in real-time for those organizations that want to react to information quickly.

While dashboards are real-time, scorecards are not, said Doherty, and “take a much more structured approach to the kind of analysis they do.” Scorecards are not a snapshot of business performance at a particular moment. Rather, they funnel large amounts of information over a period of time like the last quarter, or even a plot of performance trends.

In short, said Doherty, dashboards are tactical while scorecards are strategic. The former tend to be deployed at higher levels in the organizational hierarchy, among those “for whom understanding the vital signs of the business is most important.” The latter is deployed throughout an organization as “a source of feedback” at the level of the executive, business unit, department, and individual.

But the format boundaries can get blurry, said Quin, because even in the realm of the dashboard, there are numerous types. There are strategic dashboards to gauge performance; analytical dashboards that are interactive for the analyst; operational dashboards geared towards frontline workers like shipping, inventory, and sales representatives; and custom dashboards that are a mix of all of these types with the goal of offering very tailored information.

But while business intelligence users tend to fall in disparate groups across the organization based on their different accountabilities, familiarity with technology, too, plays a role in preferred business intelligence formats. Quin described a “pyramid of users” where the peak represents technical savvy, and the base, the not-so technical savvy. Actually, 90 to 95 per cent of most organizations comprise non-technical business users, according to Quin.

Business intelligence accessibility, in Quin’s view, differs in the number of “clicks” required to access the data, where “zero clicks” would be a report that is e-mailed to the user — “the most consumable type of business intelligence.” As clicks increase, access becomes a little harder, and users either have to log in into a system to select the right report, or have to adjust certain parameters before running the actual query.

But whatever the format, the benefits of data analytics will be lost if there isn’t the right infrastructure in place to support that, said Doherty. “If you don’t have the business processes in place, you don’t have the management structure in place, you don’t have an appetite for this kind of analysis, you’re going to spend a lot of money on an application that doesn’t deliver business value,” he said.

At the end of the day, Doherty said, enterprises should remember that business intelligence is a software that manipulates data, but with the goal of enhancing business decision-making.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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