When small businesses go shopping for business intelligence and analytics solutions, the tendency can be to take a giant leap
When most of us started our professional lives, business intelligence (BI) was an exclusive privilege only big companies could enjoy. Implementing analytics software required building data centers and hiring IT specialists and consultants.
Times have changed, and today, small business BI is a booming industry. The same technological explosion that made the whole world fit into our pocket (in the shape of a smartphone) also dramatically reduced the size and cost of analytical solutions. For the first time, it is possible for small businesses to deploy BI to fulfill different needs, analyze their performance, predict their future, and make better decisions.
According to an article in Forbes, 89% of business leaders believe Big Data will revolutionize business operations in the same way the Internet did.
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The Business Intelligence Big Bang
While technology has allowed small businesses entry into the once exclusive BI club, it has also caused analytics solutions to proliferate. The sheer number of options available today are enough to confuse any CFO or CEO. For instance, analytics tools can be segmented based on six different criteria:
- Types: BI platforms, CPM suites, predictive analytics, etc.
- Services: Professional services or managed services
- Deployment: On-premise or cloud-based
- End-users: Small and medium businesses or large enterprises
- Industry: Healthcare, retail, energy, IT, telecom, etc.
- Regions: North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, Middle East and Africa
Add to that an overkill of jargon and some marketing bells and whistles, and any CFO or CEO is at risk of making a bad choice. Getting a BI solution that isn’t perfect for your needs leads to wasted time and money. It can become a source of pain rather than comfort.
Problems With Business Intelligence Implementation
The biggest challenge small and medium sized businesses face while implementing BI and analytics tools is the lack of a skilled workforce. Most of the big-name business intelligence solutions, from vendors such as Oracle (Hyperion), IBM (Cognos ), SAP (Business Objects), and Microsoft (SharePoint) require full-time database administrators to implement and maintain them.
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The tools on the lower end of the spectrum have severe limitations, such as needing to be installed locally, which can prove difficult if you don’t have a proficient IT crew. And then, you should be ready to work nights and weekends when you need to make your dashboards and reports available outside of the corporate network, keep your data syncing properly, and create new reports and dashboards on your own.
Similarly, other low-end data extraction applications might require you to procure a front-end BI application, implement it, and get the data into it. This is not easy. Pulling in external data is even more complicated.
Where Small Businesses Falter
When small businesses go shopping for BI and analytics solutions, the tendency can be to take a giant leap. The prospect of having all your data integrated and available to end users sounds exciting.
Moreover, management may think the system they buy should accommodate any future needs that arise as their business grows. Many of them can lose sight of the fact that the solution must be easy and fast to adopt in the short term in order to be successful in the long term.
Of course, the marketing dollars and sales pitches by different solution providers also play a role in blinding the decision makers of their immediate needs, and selling a complicated system that’s far too expansive (and expensive) for a small business that basically needs to analyze QuickBooks data.
Seamless, End-to-end, All-in-one Headache
The truth is that regardless of how seamless and smooth a provider makes it appear, achieving a fully integrated BI environment is a daunting task. A small business may not have the kind of effort it takes to keep such a system up and running. Even medium-sized firms may find themselves struggling to perform the unnerving tasks of security, data-integration, database and server maintenance, making reports and dashboards available outside the corporate firewall, importing data from new sources, customizing dashboards, and pulling the particular reports they want.
The Best Business Intelligence Bet for Small Business
The best course of action for a small business is to adopt a “crawl, walk, run” approach, as noted by SAP. They should implement BI in stages, starting with small steps, and building upon them as they achieve proficiency.
This approach allows the organization to learn on a small budget, and the mistakes are not expensive. Hence, in the crawl phase, the objective is to get comfortable with BI technology and implement the aspects that have an immediate impact on day-to-day decision making.
In the walk and run phases, the organization can build on its success to go for a higher degree of integration, transitioning from simple reports and executive dashboards to more complicated operational reports, search-based queries, ad hoc analysis, and mobile BI.
The BI Solution You Need
In practice, the best approach for a small business is to consider a SaaS based BI suite that provides the best data connectors for their most important data. Business intelligence solutions with straight-forward integration requirements and immediate impact, such as Bison’s QuickBooks Connector, are a much better alternative for serious companies without access to (or money for) in-house database and analytics folks to support a BI initiative.
Unless you grow past the stage where maintaining a big-ticket, fully integrated BI tool becomes feasible, the smart thing to do would be to reap all the benefits of BI while off-loading the headache to the SaaS provider.
The only thing you need to ensure is that your BI solution provider has a highly skilled team that can jump on new development requirements or issues at a moment’s notice.