Choosing Your Business Intelligence Solution: Don’t Be Afraid of the “Smoosh-ins®”

May 30, 2013
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BI best practicesWhen an enterprise selects a BI solution, it should be able to get the combinations of BI functionality that best meet the varied needs of different communities. 

BI best practicesWhen an enterprise selects a BI solution, it should be able to get the combinations of BI functionality that best meet the varied needs of different communities. 

Getting exactly what you want is a principle that was most deliciously embodied by Steve’s Ice Cream, an institution beloved by Boston-area college students beginning in 1973. Steve pioneered the “smoosh-in,” adding customer-selected goodies like crushed Heath Bars® and M&Ms® to his rich, slow-churned ice cream. (Now you can buy ice cream like this in any grocery store, but in the 1970s you had to wait in line at Steve’s Somerville store.)

Like the original Steve’s ice cream, BI is best when you pick and choose.  

So why do Enterprise IT groups often standardize on the equivalent of a pint of vanilla when selecting hardware and software products? There is a variety of reasons:

  • Lower costs — there is only one tool to learn, use and support
  • More expertise — they can develop more expertise by concentrating on one tool
  • Potential lowered licensing costs
  • Better vendor support —  “one neck to choke” (a phrase that I hate)

When choosing a BI solution, the IT group typically goes through a software evaluation or “bake-off,” selecting tools based on who scores the most across a multitude of criteria. The winner is typically a full-stack BI vendor because it has the most extensive feature checklist and when you add up the scores it has the highest number. In addition, enterprise IT groups will use the ratings from industry research analysts to justify their selection. (The analysts themselves likely went through a feature checklist selecting the most feature-rich product.)

An enterprise’s business community will have a very diverse set of analytical needs and work styles. The type of analysis they perform will vary based on the depth, subject, volume, and structure of the data used, as well as the business processes: examining salespeople’s performance, providing customer support, predicting customer behavior, etc. Business people will also approach analysis differently based on their background and experience.

Although BI tools have been around for a couple of decades, the depth, breadth and variety of BI capabilities and styles continues to expand and change. A decade ago, dashboards and scorecards were the rage as compared with the typical reporting tools at that time. This was followed by On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) and ad-hoc query tools.  BI options now include data discovery, data visualization, in-memory analytics, predictive modeling, BI appliances and Big Data analytics.

The BI products that enterprises standardize on provide solid BI functionality, but even the full-stack BI vendors do not provide all the BI capabilities and analytical styles that business people could use. The reality is that much of the analytical innovation comes from emerging or smaller vendors. The full-stack vendors may build comparable capabilities or acquire these innovative products after they see them being adopted, but it may be years for that to happen.  Meanwhile, the enterprises that wait may be placing their business community in a competitive disadvantage.

The best approach that IT can take is to first determine the variety of BI capabilities and styles that their business community needs, and then expand their BI portfolio rather than trying to channel everyone into a one-size-fits-all approach. This process should not to encourage a free-for-all with BI tools purchased just for variety sake, but rather focus on filling in legitimate gaps in what their BI standard tool does not support today.

As anyone who waited in line for a serving of Steve’s famous ice cream with M&Ms and crushed Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups® will tell you, selecting the perfect combination for your needs is the only way to go.

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