Business Intelligence Tools and its Growing Role in Small Businesses

Human beings have looked at data to help boost business since the beginning of time. Go back to the Roman times about 2,000 years ago wherein a merchant may have noticed that on the days wherein he puts a canopy over his wagon to serve as a shield from the hot sun, more customers buy his wares. Because of this, he would spend time each day to put up the thing so he could gain from it.

Maybe he was just observant or maybe he was already practicing the use of Business Intelligence or BI. BI, at its most basic terms, is how one looks at available data in order to create more strategic business decisions.

While during those days, business operations may have been driven by mostly gut feel, intuition and observable data, today’s companies have an unlimited plethora of data available to them to help guide their business moves.

Big businesses have long been trying to harness the power of BI since the term “data warehousing” became the trend in the early 90’s. Companies have been trying to understand how to capture the data contained in their operating systems and into the hands of the managers without bogging both the people and the systems down. In the past twenty years, incredible progress has been made in doing so.

The IBMs and General Mills are now incorporating complicated, not to mention, expensive BI systems that can bring together data culled from a number of operating systems and come up with state of the art reports that yield not only what has happened in the past, present and the future.

According to the principal consultant Wayne Eckerson of the BI Leader Consulting, businesses employ BI platforms today to help them determine the profitability of a multitude of customers daily, follow the navigation footsteps of each visitor to a website, recognize fraudulent movements for a great number of transactions in real time, and supply service representative a full view of all customer activities in almost-real time.

He holds up the automotive valuation company Kelley Blue Book as a good example of a company using BI.

He brings up the valuation company for automotives, Kelley Blue Book, as a fitting example of a company that is using BI. “[It] sources, consolidates, normalizes, and analyzes millions of automobile transactions every week to offer the most accurate and timely car valuations in the marketplace,” Eckerson says.

Another example is provider of intermodal fleet and railcar management services, GE Capital Rail Services, which makes use of historical and near-real time data to maximize their race-car repairs, develop their customer services, and to reduce their operational costs greatly.

Business Intelligence tools allow businesses to get a glimpse of the future. According to Eckerson,  “When Amazon recommends what other books you might like, that’s predictive analytics. They’re basically looking at historical data and applying some mathematical models to it and then running them against your records and they come up with nice cross cell recommendations.”

But what if you are small to medium business? Should you also consider getting your hands on BI? Or are there some SMB’s that are better off without it?

Here are the thoughts of some BI experts on the topic:

Small businesses can compete with the larger shops or boost their market share with the help of BI tools. “When done properly, the analytics can provide insights into trend analysis that otherwise can’t be seen. BI can also provide insights in to the cost-of-acquiring new customers over time, and how those costs are related to ‘customer gain or loss,’” shares president of Empowered Holdings, Dan Linstedt.

More and more easy-to-use and affordable BI software are becoming available.

“This has not always been the case with BI tools, but things have evolved rapidly and…Newer technologies such as open source, cloud, in-memory technology, Web 2.0 interfaces, and new visualization technology are making BI tools much more friendly to SMBs,” confides BI Leader Consulting’s Eckerson.

An example of this is the interactive visualization tool called Tableau, which is very easy to install and use. iDashboards, on the other hand, is a dashboarding tool ideal for smaller work departments or groups which costs only $10,000.

BI tools are now starting to appeal to a younger crowd.

“Newer generations of BI are showing real promise in terms of usability…collaborative decision-making, visualization, gamification and iterative scenario analysis. The ‘users’ of these tools are increasingly people who are one or even two generations younger than those of us who started this party. They will not tolerate the quality of the legacy tools. Their experience is not in enterprise software, it’s the consumer WEB, where things are engaging and actually work without a three-day training class,” says Hired Brains analyst and consultant , Neil Raden.