Business Intelligence, or BI, has been around for a very long time. First used in the 1950s, the term has come a long way and really started gaining mainstream attention in the late 1990s. Since then, it has been used to describe everything from a single Microsoft Excel worksheet to much more complex items such as Analytical Performance Management, Geospatial analytics, and Non modeled exploration and In-memory analytics (to name a few). Are you as confused yet?
The primary reason for this blog post is to share what our experience (aka the real world) has taught us on how to practically implement BI for our clients. I’ll do my best to keep this short-and-sweet, because in all honesty there’s plenty to say on this topic, and enough BI buzzwords and statistics to confuse the entire island of Manhattan!
Our firm, C5 Insight, primarily works with three platforms (SharePoint, Dynamics CRM and Salesforce.com) that all perform some flavor of BI. In working closely with our awesome clients, we have learned that it’s not always the technology that causes Analysis Paralysis, but often it’s the very term “Business Intelligence.” After digging into this more, we realized that the term often has the connotation of a complex, multi-tiered OLAP data-warehouse that will take a team of 12 data architects to implement. Understandably, to clients this equals more time to implement, which ultimately equals more money to spend. That alone stops many businesses in their tracks and prevents them from ever touching BI.
Starting now, let’s not call it Business Intelligence (BI), let’s call it Data Visualization (DV). In fact, I really like Vitaly Friedman’s definition of this:
“The main goal of data visualization is to communicate information clearly and effectively through graphical means. It doesn’t mean that data visualization needs to look boring to be functional or extremely sophisticated to look beautiful. To convey ideas effectively, both aesthetic form and functionality need to go hand in hand, providing insights into a rather sparse and complex data set by communicating its key-aspects in a more intuitive way. Yet designers often fail to achieve a balance between form and function, creating gorgeous data visualizations which fail to serve their main purpose – to communicate information."
I’ve bolded the two phrases that really stand out to me. In our experience, this is what most of our clients are trying to achieve. Of course, we do have large clients that have very large data-warehouses with teams of data architects, but by and large, this is exactly what most are looking for – I know it is certainly true of our firm. So with "Data Visulization (DV)" as our new term, what does this mean for you? I’m glad you asked!
Below are three steps that we hope will help get your organization pointed in the right direction to simply do something with the data and insight that you already possess – in essence, attain BI (the term your boss uses) through fairly simple DV (the term you are now using).
- Start simple
What I mean by this is start with what you already have. You don’t need to begin by spending months designing data marts, cubes, and queries. Without even knowing you or your business, my guess is that you have some (all?) of your data already organized in Excel spreadsheets. After all, Excel is one of the greatest data organization and storage tools ever developed. The spreadsheets could be on your desktop (we won’t tell your boss), a file share (at least it is now backed-up), or SharePoint (choir singing the Hallelujah chorus). Regardless of where it is stored today, if you have your data in Excel, you are literally halfway home to building a great dashboard or data visualization. Excel has some pretty amazing tools to create relevant and data visualizations. Don’t believe us, take a look at some real-world examples of data visualized using Excel.
I mentioned Excel first, because everyone reading this blog likely has it in their organization and likely has data there already. Another simple approach is to leverage Dynamics CRM or Salesforce.com if you use either platform in your organization. If you do, you likely have a good source of data there as well – after all, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is already a data warehouse of sorts. For example, there are many ways to generate quick and meaningful dashboards in Dynamics CRM, and I’m not even talking about Reporting Services. I won’t dive deep into CRM here, but you can search our blog for many topics on dashboards in CRM.
Ultimately, the takeaway is that you don’t need something massive to start building something meaningful (and beautiful).
- Rethink your objectives
Just because the term "BI" – and possibly even data warehouse, analytics or any number of other terms – have been thrown out by your boss or someone in your department, start by taking one day to step back and truly understand what it is you are trying to accomplish. It’s amazing how much clarity you can gain by breaking it down and asking, “What would be the first thing we’d like to see that we don’t have today?” Again, start simple. It often helps to think of what you’re trying to accomplish as a proof-of-concept or pilot. More often than not, our mindset going in truly changes the outcome (and the duration). Maybe you start by setting a goal of one new visualization in Excel by the end of the month. Then, simply rinse and repeat. Do this again and again and in no time, you will a few of these visualizations under your belt. A handful of visualizations = a dashboard. Wow…that was easy!
- Understand what tools you have to work with (without investing in something new)
As mentioned above, the first goal is to realize, you don’t need to start with something complex and overly engineered. I believe that most organizations have learned (unfortunately most of them the hard way) that starting small, with a milestone or phased approach always provides the highest success rate. This is one of the core principles in our 7 Habits of Successful Projects (a blog on that will come soon). So with your basic data in hand, start determining what other platforms or systems you can leverage. My guess is, you may have access to pretty robust system(s) and not even know it. Of course, our favorite examples are SharePoint, Dynamics CRM and Salesforce.com, and nearly every prospect or client we talk to has SharePoint in their organization. These platforms are not required, but they can quickly turn your standalone Excel worksheet into a dashboard in short order.
My hope is that this blog post, and these three items in particular, will help you take a step back and get started with something today. We all know this, we’ve been taught it all of our lives (How to eat an elephant, baby steps, one foot in front of the other, day-by-day, etc.).
If you have any questions regarding this post or our services, please contact us. Also, leave us a comment to tell us if this post has helped you get started and what you are building!