By Cassandra Balentine
Business intelligence (BI) is essential to the continued growth and evolution of enterprises worldwide. They understand the importance of collecting and managing data, but it is the next step—leveraging that data—that provides meaningful business results.
“Organizations all over the world are making significant efforts to become data-driven enterprises, but some are doing it better than others,” comments Hugh Owen, VP product marketing, MicroStrategy.
Companies that effectively harness the unfolding convergence of today’s most powerful, disruptive technologies—social, mobile, big data, and the cloud—lead the pack in transforming organizations through BI and analytics. “We’re in a consumer-driven, mobile age, and businesses have to adapt to be successful,” adds Owen.
The disruptive technologies he describes comprise what is coined, “The Nexus of Forces,” by research firm Gartner. In its recent Transform Your Business With the Nexus of Forces research, the firm offers a summary, “the Nexus of Forces poses opportunities and threats to how organizations do business. This update to nexus research enables CIOs and IT leaders to make the necessary changes to reshape their roles, engage employees in new ways, and embrace the vendors that will help them on their nexus journey.”
Jennifer Sherman, SVP, product management, Aptean, suggests that the era of information for information’s sake is over. “Organizations need goals in terms of the types of insight they want to be able to extract. They need to be willing to put in place the organizational changes required to ensure that they make use of the insight they glean,” she offers.
To take advantage of BI, it is important to determine strategic uses of the information. “What action items will be generated by understanding the trends in the data, and what tactical check points need to be in place to ensure accountability?” asks Sherman. “The best set of dashboards and alerts in the world won’t transform your business if you aren’t geared up to drive accountability and processes around the discovery and actions that stem from it. BI is a practice as much as it is a product.”
Leading BI Adoption
Many organizations have made BI a priority. Key verticals, including online retailers and financial services have really excelled with its help, suggests Owen.
Since online retailers have every key-stroke, preference, and relevant buying history recorded for their customers, they can make more effective recommendations—up- and cross-selling like never before. “Store clerks in a physical store can forget to smile or offer the ancillary purchase, leading to lost sales. Online retailers don’t have that problem. Rather, analysts in these firms have a more closed-loop environment to test promotions, advertising, and discounts and get meaningful—often immediate—results from analytics,” he offers.
For financial services, the lifeblood of the firm is in the numbers, so Owen doesn’t find it surprising that these companies have always been ahead of the curve on technology in a very information-intensive space. “Innovative insurance companies use location analytics to improve the management of risk. Location analytics allow users to interface financial information with geographic data, demographic information, and weather patterns. Using these applications, companies can more accurately assess risk, make better predictions, and directly impact their bottom line,” he adds.
Herain Oberoi, director of product management, Microsoft data platform, notes that BI is already used in a variety of organizations. “Healthcare organizations, manufacturing businesses, and retail chains are all beginning to benefit from better insights from data. We expect to see business analytics solutions continue to empower everyone to realize more value from their data.”
As a whole, a trickledown effect is expected as more organizations realize the power of data and adopt the resources to take advantage of it.
“At first, BI was a luxury largely enjoyed by enterprise-size, multi-national corporations who could afford the newer and more cutting-edge technologies and had the IT staff to tailor those solutions to their needs,” says Sherman. However, BI solutions are becoming more out of the box, and configuration is transitioning into a user setup issue and not one of complicated customization.
As BI is adopted and integrated into businesses, successful cases offer a road map for others.
For example, Microsoft offers the case of Carnegie Mellon University. Established in 1900, the leading research institute operates seven globally recognized schools and colleges. It sought a way to manage energy efficiently in large buildings and across multiple sites. OSIsoft, a partner of Carnegie Mellon, created two separate solutions for the college, one using Power BI for Office 365 and the other using Azure Machine Learning (ML), says Oberoi.
The Power BI for Office 365-based solution, which is labeled the PI System, allows them to track by energy, use of time, category, building, etc. “Specifically, they use Power Query, Q&A, and Power Maps to ask questions of the data and get immediate answers, as well as to display energy usage in a map-based format,” explains Oberoi.
Additionally, using Azure ML, OSIsoft and Carnegie Mellon were able to implement real-time fault detection and diagnosis of energy output across campus buildings so that they can mitigate issues in real time, and predict energy and cost savings based on energy output. “As a result, they’ve seen up to a 30 percent energy reduction in some buildings. Thus far they’ve found that ML is significantly easier to use compared to past tools, given their engineers do not have extensive data science background,” he adds.
MicroStrategy’s Owen points out that the healthcare industry is increasingly embracing advanced analytics, mobile, and big data. The challenge, he says, is taking these massive technology investments and making them actually translate into on the ground improvements in individual patient care on a system-wide scale. “The key, in other words, is linking the gap between boardroom-level insights and departmental or shift-level efficiency gains.”
MicroStrategy customer, National Health Service (NHS) of Scotland, is an example of this. Owen notes that four of the organization’s 14 separately operated, yet affiliated NHS Boards implemented a series of MicroStrategy applications that have transformed how they operate. “With our analytics platform, these boards have been able to reduce bottlenecks and patient waiting times, minimize waste, cut costs, improve overall patient experience, and increase communication and coordination between groups at the shift, facility, and board level,” says Owen.
This is done through interactive dashboards with real-time data visualizations that empower managers and clinicians to monitor critical KPIs, such as hospital performance, capacity flow, and live bed status. Additionally, by sharing knowledge and project development templates across boards, each NHS Board has been able to accelerate the time to market for each successive application deployment.
In another case study, Microsoft customer MediaCom tackled advertising effectiveness with the help of BI. The global advertising agency needed a way to measure the health of the advertising campaigns it created for clients in order to optimize campaign performance and spend across all media, including television, print, radio, search, display, events, and Web.
With Power BI for Office 365, it created a “health check” that captured the many facets of a multi-platform media campaign. The KPIs included paid media effectiveness, earned media effectiveness, the ratio of earned media to paid media, realizing client value, and longitudinal performance. “As a result, MediaCom was able to boost productivity by 10 percent and gain anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars per campaign,” comments Oberoi.
What Can IT Do?
Data comes from all areas of an organization and with the increased focus on BI strategies, much of the pressure is on IT. To help their firms leverage this data, IT has many factors to consider.
For one, scale. “Every organization is faced with incalculable volumes of data. Technology needs to help them sort, organize, analyze, and find insights from all of it easily, so they can give every stakeholder the tools to better serve themselves, their organizations, and each other with meaningful information,” says Owen.
Oberoi suggests creating a data culture. “Many business leaders believe they need employees with specialized data science experience to get the highest return from their big data investment. However, as more data is digitized and tools become simpler, there is an opportunity for organizations to develop a data culture,” he says.
In a data culture—all business analysts—not just data scientists, benefit from tapping into the power of natural language search, self-service analytics, and visualization in familiar applications, he points out.
Owen stresses the importance of teamwork throughout an organization. “Even as self-service data discovery tools are soaring in popularity, it’s critical for IT and business users to play on the same team. From a business user’s perspective, IT can sometimes get painted as an obstacle to self-service data exploration,” he comments.
However, problems arise when business and IT cease working together and begin pulling in opposite directions. “Rather, business users should create their own analyses—combining both enterprise and departmental or personal data that IT monitors. And, if approved, can promote to the governed enterprise environment. We like to call this governed data discovery—an essential part of a comprehensive BI solution,” adds Owen.
Utilizing the cloud is also a smart step when it comes to big data. “Take the plunge and put some of your data in the cloud,” suggests Oberoi. “Big data is the poster child workload for the cloud. Supporting big data from an infrastructure and scalability perspective is all about elastic scale and computing in the cloud on demand at a reasonable price.”
He explains that it enables organizations to keep information that would be previously discarded, process large volumes of data, and eliminate any upfront infrastructure cost as you pay only for the storage and compute capacity that you use, when you use it. Oberoi says this not only opens up big data to organizations that can’t afford to invest in the large infrastructure required to support large scale data processing, but also provides a more economical path for those on the fence about how to get started.
“Those concerned about data security, governance, and compliance in the cloud should compare existing data center security with their cloud vendors,” suggests Oberoi.” Cloud vendors invest billions of dollars in designing data centers to internationally recognized standards that comply with both regional laws as well as their own stringent security and privacy policies.”
Most importantly, all data should work for the organization. “Valuable answers require logically joining different data sets, both structured and unstructured—something every database person is familiar with,” he says. He explains that in traditional databases, the accessible data is constrained to data contained within the database. “This data has been normalized, cleaned, and indexed so it can be used to efficiently answer a fixed set of questions over that data domain. Using new technologies, such as Apace Hadoop, business can quickly start to store unstructured and external data and begin to bring it into the fold.”
Aptean’s Sherman says one factor hindering end user adoption of BI is the amount of data from disparate data sources. She asks, does the solution include data not from enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain, and manufacturing applications? Can it also pull data in from the myriad of spreadsheets and other tertiary tools that the enterprise is using? Is there a harmonized data model that makes all that information readily accessible? “This is a big information architecture task and one that requires much upfront IT planning,” cautions Sherman.
There is no shortage of BI tools on the market, from platforms to plug ins. Here we describe the functions of a few.
Aptean Analytics is a BI platform that leverages QlikTech’s QlikView technology as its core BI technology engine. Key features as described by Sherman include a high-performance, in-memory associative search and data discovery, and a strong set of configurable user experience tools that enable social interaction and collaboration over data.
The solution extends the Qlikiew Platform to build a user flow and look and feel consistent with Aptean’s new user interface standards across the portfolio so that layout, menus, color scheme, navigation flow, and icons are familiar to users and appear as a seamless element of its solutions.
On top of this foundation, Aptean is designed to deliver industry-specific analytics solutions that span silos that are often the result of BI built around a single product line—such as CRM or manufacturing—so that companies can get an end-to-end picture of the health of their business.
For example, Sherman notes that a traditional ERP-centric BI offering may speak only to order-to-cash metrics, but Aptean’s platform is able to offer opportunity-to-cash since it draws data from both its CRM and ERP systems into one harmonized BI data model.
A manufacturer can see all sources of margin erosion from pricing to purchasing to manufacturing quality issues. To do this, Aptean draws data from CRM and manufacturing solutions. “Those solution sets vary by industry so that each analytics package is sourcing data from an industry-specific set of solutions. Each specialize in a targeted set of verticals,” says Sherman. This means that the BI solution presents data and allows users to discover insights that are relevant and important to their industry.
Microsoft delivers on its vision of making BI and analytics accessible through the familiar tools used by people today. “With the accessibility of Excel and the recent release of Power BI for Office 365, we aim to lower the barrier of entry for users and reduce the complexity or deploying BI for our customers,” says Oberoi.
Microsoft BI is built on the enterprise-grade capabilities of SQL Server, providing a modern data platform to manage and scale BI across an organization.
Oberoi notes that the Microsoft BI offering delivers a familiar and powerful self-service BI with Excel. “We empower users of all levels with one tool to access and mash up data from virtually any source, create compelling reports and visualizations, and easily share insights with colleagues—all within Microsoft Excel.”
Additionally, it facilitates sharing and collaboration. “We enable a more collaborative decision-making process by seamlessly integrating BI into our existing collaboration platform, SharePoint and Office 365, providing ease of sharing and access to trusted information,” he adds.
The better management of self-service content is also delivered, according to Oberoi. “We uniquely empower end users with self-service BI while also providing IT with better tools for monitoring and managing end user created content.”
Microsoft BI offers a complete platform for analyzing any data, any size, anywhere, offering business insight to all users from structured and unstructured data of any volume. “This includes providing a unified and intuitive approach to discovery, gathering, storage, indexing, exploring, and self service on traditional and non-traditional sources inclusive of big data,” says Oberoi.
For advanced analytics, the company offers a fully managed cloud service for building predictive analytics solutions with Microsoft Azure ML. “With Azure ML, customers can build intelligent services in days and minutes that leverage industry-leading algorithms, nearly unlimited scale of Azure, and the development of the Web,” he says.
Finally, Microsoft BI is designed to provide users with the flexibility to deliver it on their own terms. “A complete and integrated BI platform providing customers with the flexibility to deploy on premise and in the cloud, choosing the right deployment options to meet their needs,” adds Oberoi.
MicroStrategy provides a comprehensive, end-to-end analytics platform. As an independent software company, it is focused on empowering businesses with information-driven applications via the Web, cloud, and mobile.
“Our platform stands out because it grows with the user as they progress in sophistication and scale seamlessly with attention to the needs of users and administrators, while bridging the needs of IT and business,” says Owen. “From reporting to dashboards to beautiful visualizations, governed data discovery, and advanced analytics, our platform is the result of 20 years of organic, internal development and sustained, innovative R&D.”
Big Data for Business
BI is a technology of growing importance to nearly every organization. While collecting and storing masses of unstructured data is the first step, it’s what a company is able to eventually do with the information that provides the true value.
From healthcare to education, BI does not discriminate across verticals, as illustrated by examples discussed in this article.
Depending on the level of complexity needed, BI tools present the capabilities that allow organizations to meet a set goal—from reducing costs to improving customer satisfaction. SW
Dec2014, Software Magazine