Business intelligence (BI) involves using technology to analyze data for actionable insights and improved decision-making. BI solutions collect internal and external data from a variety of sources and provide numerous tools for interacting with that data, such as queries, reports, dashboards, and data visualizations.
Choosing a business intelligence solution is no easy matter thanks to dozens of potential products to consider. What’s more, BI solutions can vary dramatically in terms of price, features, capabilities, and interfaces. A huge price tag isn’t necessarily a signal of quality, nor should you be swayed by fancy bells and whistles. Even getting recommendations from other business intelligence professionals can be problematic as what makes a good BI solution for one company often makes a terrible one for another.
With these thoughts in mind, we’ll explore the key ingredients — such as the developer’s commitment to constantly improving the product and must-have features — of a good BI solution.
Key Features for Any Business Intelligence Solution
Start your search for a good BI solution by ensuring that each contender has the following key features:
- An open architecture and wide database support — BI solutions built on proprietary architectures or that support only a handful of databases limit your options whereas those built with an open architecture and with wide database support will come with fewer limits and be more likely to integrate with other databases, applications, and platforms.
- The ability to deliver real-time data — The fresher your data, the better. Real-time data helps you to make the most informed decisions possible.
- Application import options — Data often resides in other applications, making it crucial to have an efficient means of importing data and charts.
- Self-service — It’s not uncommon for end-users to require technical assistance when using business applications. The complexities of business intelligence make this a real concern. Self-service tools, such as dashboards, mashups, and ad hoc reports, reduce the burden on IT personnel while simultaneously empowering users to help themselves. The days of relying on IT personnel to create queries, and design reports are over; that is, if you choose a BI solution with self-service capabilities.
- Visual tools like dashboards, data visualizations, and visual business analytics — Visual tools and personalized dashboards help users make sense of data, resulting in timely, better decisions. Dashboards measure KPIs and display those metrics graphically such as in thermometers, gauges, and charts.
- Robust, enterprise reporting including interactive reports and “mashups” — Also highly visual, multidimensional charts, interactive reports, and geographic mapping along with drill-down options allow for deeper, more relevant explorations of data. Geographic mapping (or location intelligence) allows you to analyze data graphically by region. “Mashups” involve dragging and dropping data from diverse sources to create unique data visualizations. Ad hoc reports are also essential as are ranking reports, business analytics reports, scheduled reports, and “what if” analysis. The ability to import and export reports is also highly desirable.
- Mobile Support — Mobile devices are here to stay, with each device and platform having its own unique requirements. A good BI solution will provide a native experience for each device and platform.
Data security and data access go hand-in-hand but are tricky to balance. The key is to ensure access to those who truly need it while preventing access by those who don’t. At the same time, security must address the needs of authorized users without unduly burdening them.
Single Sign-On / Integration
When a security schema is used in a BI application, that same security should be used for reporting. This is accomplished with a single sign-on which allows users to enter their credentials in one place and eliminates the need to login whenever switching between related applications.
User Permissions and Privacy – At All Levels (Application, Data, and Report)
Users have different needs and roles. The ability to customize features, access, and security to individual users and/or their user roles gives you greater control over who can access sensitive data and what they can do.
In addition to defining user roles and their permissions, a good BI solution includes application, data, and report security controls. With application-level security, user roles determine how the application looks and acts. For example, different menu options may be displayed based on the user role.
At the data level, data returned by various tables can be restricted based on the user role or permissions. Similarly, report security restricts access to reports and reporting functions based on the user’s role and permissions.
Taken even further, multi-tenant security is also desirable. This allows you to restrict access at the row level. For example, you could build a single sales report for the entire company rather than individual reports for each salesperson. Each individual would see their own sales figures thanks to multi-tenant security.
Application Activity Auditing
The ability to track activities within an application is crucial should a security breach occur or an investigation is warranted. With application activity auditing, a log is created detailing all sign-on and sign-off activities as well as time and dates and the applications and reports accessed. In addition to managing security, audit logs can give you valuable insights as to which applications and reports are most commonly used (and those which are underutilized).
As important as features and security may be, a critical component of any BI solution is user-friendliness. If a business intelligence tool is difficult to navigate, use, and understand, users simply won’t use it. Those who do, won’t use it to its fullest advantage. In either case, an unfriendly business intelligence solution is no solution at all!
While hands-on experience with the solution is the surest way to judge its user-friendliness, focusing on BI solutions that have the following characteristics is a good starting point:
- Performance – Does the BI solution load and respond quickly or must you wait an excessive amount of time for query results?
- Simplicity – How well organized is the graphical user interface? Is it intuitive? What about the data — is it displayed visually in a comprehensive manner or are you presented with row after row of data? How technical must users be? For example, does IT need to get involved when a user wants to examine information not in a predefined report or can the user drag and drop data sources and build a report on the fly? Do users need to understand SQL and connectivity or can they simply interact with the data?
- Organization – How are the dashboards organized? Ideally, users should be presented with a simple, visual global overview along with the ability to drill down to additional, customizable levels relevant to their job roles and interests. A well-organized interface puts everything a user needs within easy reach.
- Shallow learning curve – How much training is required in order to benefit from the solution? BI solutions exist that anyone with Microsoft Excel-level skills can easily use with minimal, if any, training required.
- Visual context – It’s not unusual for a number or result to be ambiguous at first glance. For example, is $10 million good or bad? It depends on the context. Visual icons such as thumbs up signs, red flags, bullseyes, and check marks can quickly provide users with visual context.
- Accessibility/ergonomics – In the age of massive computer screens, it’s tempting to fill the space. However, visual clutter is both hard on the eyes and difficult for users to digest. With business intelligence, you want to present easy-to-digest insights, not overwhelm the senses and the user. Another consideration involves font legibility and size.
- Mobile (responsive) design – Today’s web applications and traditional software are often accessed on multiple devices including desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones. As users move from one device to the next, they expect a similar experience despite device differences. They may also require different features due to the nature of the device and the environment in which it is used. As a result, a user-friendly BI solution must provide a seamless, intuitive experience regardless of which device is used.
Keeping business intelligence as simple as possible for end-users is a must if you want the solution to be used to its fullest potential. Not only that, a user-friendly solution saves time and increases productivity.
The ability to exchange data from diverse sources including applications, databases, partners, customers, and vendors allows for a more efficient and effective ecosystem. A good business intelligence solution allows for data integration at various levels including:
- Application-level data integration – Data often resides in other applications such as Excel or QuickBooks. Users need a fast, easy, and reliable means of interacting with that data.
- Database-level data integration – Likewise, many organizations rely on multiple data sources such as SQL Server, Oracle, and SAP. Though individual data sources may not integrate directly with one another natively, a good business intelligence solution has the capability to pull information from diverse data sources. An even better one is simple enough for end users to do without IT intervention.
- Partner-level data integration – Partners increasingly expect higher levels of data integration so that they can adjust production capacity or inventory levels as needed. Likewise, your company can benefit from insights gleaned from partner and vendor data. For example, finding out about potential parts shortages in advance may give you enough time to reengineer a product to use an alternative part or find a secondary supplier.
In addition to key features, security, user-friendliness, and data integration, a good BI solution will include advanced features such as those listed below:
- Open integration – Earlier we talked about data integration at the application, database, and partner levels. These are a must; however, what about the rest of the cyberworld? Open integration ensures that data can be collected elsewhere such as from the Internet, social media sites, email, cloud services, or even factory equipment.
- Automated alerts – What happens if a key performance indicator falls below a predetermined level or a supplier is running dangerously low on a much-needed part? Automated alerts ensure that key personnel are immediately notified via email or SMS message — in real time. Automated alerts allow your team to proactively respond to critical events as they happen, potentially preventing a crisis.
- Collaboration – Business collaboration tools are changing how colleagues exchange knowledge and information. However, many are standalone systems. Built-in collaboration makes sharing dashboards, data visualizations, and reports amongst colleagues even easier and more efficient. Because user permissions typically vary by role, keeping collaboration within the business intelligence solution itself also ensures that all appropriate security rules are enforced. For example, if a regional sales manager shares a sales report with her entire team via an external collaboration tool, each team member would see the same information (including potentially sensitive information that they’re not authorized to see). On the other hand, if the report is shared within the BI environment, each user would see only the data they have been authorized to see.
- Self-service – It’s not uncommon for end users to require technical assistance when using business applications. The complexities of business intelligence make this a real concern. Self-service tools, such as dashboards, mashups, and ad hoc reports, reduce the burden on IT personnel while simultaneously empowering users to help themselves.
- Rebranding options – White labeling/rebranding options allow you to “brand” the solution with your company logo, providing users with a consistent interface.
- Scalability – Let’s say you’ve found the perfect business intelligence solution that has everything you could possibly need. Will it keep up with your company’s growth? What happens if you need additional capacity? The best BI solutions are able to keep up with businesses as they change.
- Cloud-based BI – Cloud computing has numerous advantages over on-premises software, making choosing a cloud-based business intelligence solution an advantageous choice. For example, users can access the software from virtually any location and any device. Cloud-based software is offered on an ongoing subscription-based model which is attractive to many businesses, and there’s no capital investment required.
Because business intelligence solutions are both plentiful and vastly different from one vendor to the next, finding a good fit for your company can quickly become a confusing and overwhelming challenge. Fortunately, by focusing on the key characteristics outlined in this white paper, you can narrow your choices into a more manageable list and ultimately find the best BI solution for your needs.
We recommend focusing on the following:
- Key features: real-time data, import options, self-service, visual tools, robust reporting, and mobile support
- Security: single sign-on, user permissions and privacy, and application activity auditing
- User-friendliness: performance, simplicity, organization, shallow learning curve, visual context, accessibility / ergonomics, and responsive design
- Data integration: application-level, database-level, and partner-level integration
- Advanced features: open integration, automated alerts, collaboration, rebranding options, scalability, and cloud-based business intelligence.
With a mission of providing high quality, open standards-based business intelligence software that does not lock clients into a single BI solution, staying nimble and innovating, and designing software that is easy to use and deploy, InetSoft offers scalable, cloud-based business intelligence solutions that are visually compelling, interactive, user-friendly, and affordable.
Download a free trial or contact InetSoft to learn more:
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