How BI Is So Much More Than Just a Reporting Tool

March 7, 2015
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One of the oldest and most misguided thoughts about business intelligence is that it’s a glorified tool for analytics reporting. How many times have we heard the annoying question, “oh, why don’t you just use Excel for that?”

Not to discredit the powerful potential of Excel, but it’s just not even remotely the same.

One of the oldest and most misguided thoughts about business intelligence is that it’s a glorified tool for analytics reporting. How many times have we heard the annoying question, “oh, why don’t you just use Excel for that?”

Not to discredit the powerful potential of Excel, but it’s just not even remotely the same.

Those of us in the BI industry have made our case and know that there’s so much more to BI than just reporting in a “sexy” way. We’ve almost made it our part-time job to correct every aspect of this misconception and show the whole value of a well-done BI implementation.

This article should begin to help you combat the generalizations where BI has simply been demoted to a “reporting tool.” The points outlined below will demonstrate how BI goes beyond one category and makes deep changes in any organization, providing a continuous improvement tool that boosts data quality, maximizes the potential of your ERP source and drives informational self-sufficiency.

#1. Prioritize and Improve Data Quality

After almost any BI implementation, organizations quickly realize that their BI analytics scarcely match their old ones. It’s nearly impossible to avoid given the complexities of some source systems. Then they open their dashboards and discover that data quality is a real issue when the nice dashboards they were expecting don’t look as glamorous or useful.

This suggests that people usually do tons of extra work in exporting the information from the source systems due to the bad data quality. This won´t allow them to generate the analysis they need and most of the time they’re forced to manually clean/transform/homologate/integrate/complement data. I’m sure many of you have been in this situation and know that in some cases this process of cleansing and validation takes weeks or even months. 

In order to solve these kinds of issues, BI directs us to make several changes. Not only does this help clean the data, it also provides the organization with a culture of accountability for their future data entries.

Although BI alone isn’t meant to be a comprehensive data quality solution, it gives us certain tools that allow for an elevated sense of data “cleanliness.” Blank customer attributes, wrong or missing relationships and members, null or missing keys, table and column profiling and duplicate key detection are all examples of the many ways BI can help you expose your data quality issues and put you on the path of attempting to fix them.


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For example, in image 1.1, we see that gender isn’t being validated when a customer is registered, so we’ll need to update existing customer details and ensure all new customer information is complete so gender and sales analysis can be done.

#2. Improvements in ERP, CRM and Other Source Systems

Once an organization starts using BI, their information needs start to grow and they begin unlocking the potential behind supplying accurate data to business users in order to make more astute decisions.

In many cases they notice that the existing ERP solution was implemented under an operational focus rather than a strategic one, and now feels relatively incomplete in retrospect. Basically, users may have been collecting and plugging data into the ERP source system without knowing what a fuller and richer series of data points could produce on a more granular analytics level. 

Due to this, fields, processes and modules that are not being used and seemed purposeless at first sight now begin to make more and more sense when an organization tries to analyze a new scorecard or dashboard.

Yes, hindsight is always 20/20, but unlike the negative effects of bad parenting for example, much can be changed to improve the source and have a positive impact on the utility and detail of the BI layer for your users.

So, in this way, new areas of improvement within our ERP are discovered, helping us to maximize the use of our ERP solution to leverage our previous investment. Organizations will create a continual information improvement culture and will likely have their BI solution be the cornerstone of this change.
 
With the realization of a proper use of BI and how beneficial thoughtful data collection across divisions and departments can be, business people will stop viewing their organization as a bunch of small, information-independent business units that rarely talk to each other in the same language. They will be now considered one big whole entity where information between business units must flow and make sense in an easy way, and plug into the ERP. 


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The better input data we have, the better our BI will be. Img 1.2 won´t allow any interesting customer analysis. Img 1.3 will provide better data to create regional reports or salesperson report for example. BI can uncover the shortcomings in the ERP. 

#3. Self-Service Culture

Let´s be honest: before BI, any organization’s reporting-based analyses were limited by their employees’ ability to transform data into integrated, consumable information. Quarterly reports were usually handed in by the halfway point of the subsequent quarter and seemed pretty useless for agile decision making.

Also, think about an organization that uses more than one system and each system uses its own customer database (something that’s alarmingly very common), and they need to analyze the integrated information of each customer. This will be a massive headache for everyone involved. Now imagine this kind of report being needed monthly…I will stop right here, because all of you know where I’m going with this.

BI won’t necessarily free you from the hard work of standardizing data, but it will fundamentally ease your job in the long-term and will be a onetime task. After that, it’s done. Monthly reports will be ready the very first day of the next month.

It might seem like we’re addressing reporting (which is contrary to the point of this article), but it’s much more than that. 

After a successful BI implementation, all of these time-consuming handmade processes should be ideally automated, so each user with just a little knowledge of the BI tool at hand will be able to create almost every report they’ll need. A BI vendor’s training will also help promote knowledge and generate further self-sufficiency. 

This self-service culture will significantly limit the requests put into the IT department to generate reports, so now they can focus on other stuff and the users of these reports can feel like less of a burden. People should be empowered to interact with data in a user-friendly environment, creating reports that they actually need and not what somebody else understood they need. Productivity is also increased by pairing off the workload between business units.

BI has the flexibility to communicate the same set of information in several ways, and this allows the user to find the most efficient way to share information and tell the story of your business performance. It’s not limited to two or three kinds of graphs or a simple table. BI will let users drill up, drill down, drill through, interact with resources, change the point of view from customer to customer, compare sales orders versus purchase orders with a few clicks and use a timeline to see how trends are going and so on.

Information will be the same and can be found in data sources but with a different arrangement; a multidimensional one. This allows for a self-servicing, fast and easy way to consume information.

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In image 1.4 we find an “information cube.” It’s nothing more than a visual representation of how the data is arranged and can be analyzed by the BI solution. We can extract a piece of information and study it from several points of view depending on our needs.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, BI is far from just a tool for regular old reporting. In the short-term, a well implemented BI solution helps us immediately discover data errors, missing validators, data inconsistency, and so much more. In the mid-term, it will change the way data flows across an organization’s processes, reducing reporting time considerably, empowering people and supporting decision-makers with useful and on-time information.

Lastly, in the long-term, the organization will enjoy a virtuous circle when it comes to information needs and buttressing the depth of their ERP and data collection culture. All of these variables combined represent a competitive edge in the marketplace and can help stimulate the organization’s growth in more ways than one.

As one of our BI users pointed out: “ZAP BI is about more than just reporting; it’s a tool that provides users at different levels with easy and fast information to support their decisions that benefit business units. There is no need to be a BI guru, with ZAP you can analyze your data from different points of view in a friendly way, and this helps out the business to be proactive rather than reactive.” – Roberto Gamez – IT Manager, Red Ambiental

 
Contributors: 
David Ramírez – Sales Executive ZAP LATAM
Heber Cogordan – BI Consultant ZAP LATAM
Ricardo Rodríguez – BI Consultant ZAP LATAM 
Guillermo Varela –  CEO ZAP LATAM