As an industry analyst, one of the things that keeps business intelligence (BI) interesting to me is the fact that the market is constantly changing. On the one hand, solution providers try their best to stay ahead of the technology curve and of their competitors by developing leading-edge offerings that take into account advanced applications of analytics. On the other hand, organizations apply these solutions to help meet the needs of their organization – whether due to lack of visibility into their operations or because of a specific business performance issue. Either way, both sides play a dance of challenge with vendors striving for innovation and business users struggling to achieve value.
For small and mid-sized companies, this is even more so. There tends to be a division between organizations that are already on board with business intelligence and continuously looking for ways to improve upon decision-making strategies and the companies that realize the value of what business intelligence has to offer but that are searching for the best way to start. Therefore, when looking at the way vendors develop and deliver business solutions, the question that needs to be addressed is whether the needs of both of these types of organizations are actually being met.
Current Business Intelligence Use and Optimization
Many SMBs are no longer new to business intelligence. A few years ago, there was a market push to expand toward the mid-market through the development of solutions that were less expensive and quicker to deploy. In addition, niche offerings, software as a service (SaaS), commercial open source, and newer entrants to the market helped with broader adoption within small and mid-sized organizations. Consequently, many businesses have adopted these technologies and are actively interacting with business intelligence on a daily basis. Therefore, the issue is no longer on adoption, but rather on using BI
effectively and in a way that provides value to the business.
Although many SMBs actively interact with business intelligence, many are unsure of the exact ROI it provides or how to integrate all required data into a singular view to develop strategic metrics. The technology and interactivity might be there, but the goal of improved visibility and how to take BI use to the next level may be lacking. In essence, for these organizations, a large gap exists. The drive and desire to implement cutting-edge technology and adopt the newest BI solutions available compete with the ability to get business value out of what exists.
Therefore, the benefits of vendors focusing on development may offset the fact that no equal focus on providing advice that relates to the optimization of current use exists on a broad industry level. Driving widespread adoption of business intelligence in a way that promotes the expansion of use requires an educational gap to be filled. The focus on BI as a development tool or as a cool user interface lacks the realism required to give companies the ability to apply metrics or analytics within the organization in a way that ties in corporate strategy and strong data management.
New to BI and Searching
For SMBs looking at performance gaps or lack of visibility within their organization, the implementation of business intelligence and the potential to help answer questions and solve performance inefficiencies is quite promising. The question becomes how and where to start. Because of the attraction of dashboards, many businesses want to start with managing metrics. The issue that arises relates to the data layer beneath this and whether the appropriate data sources are being consolidated and how to ensure the overall level of data quality
over time. Many SMBs without a current data warehousing and general data integration infrastructure are stuck with a data environment that is less than effective at best. With disparate data sources, manual processes, multiple spreadsheets, and no way to ensure accuracy, trust levels remain low and time spent to consolidate information on a daily basis to perform analyses is exorbitant. The promise of BI in these cases may be the automation of data associated with business processes so that easier decision making can occur.
In some cases, a large gap exists between what organizations would like to do and what they have to do in order to get started with business intelligence. Even though a broad set of options exists in relation to getting analytics up and running quickly without having to worry about a data infrastructure, the ability to automate processes and to ensure data validity ends up becoming a valuable side effect of establishing a full BI infrastructure within the organization. And it's one of the issues that is not always considered before beginning a business intelligence initiative.
General Mid-Market Needs
Whether long time BI advocates or new to the cause, SMBs do have unique requirements in comparison to their enterprise counterparts. On the surface, these include limited resources, both financially and IT infrastructure wise. Realistically though, the challenges faced by SMBs expand beyond these traditional considerations. The industry education and general development of BI on the whole is geared toward enterprise organizations. Although some solution providers have built their offerings to meet the needs of mid-sized companies, many others have not. For instance, some solutions targeted to SMBs are smaller or incomplete versions of their enterprise counterparts.
For organizations to identify what would work best within their company and whether to go with a full BI suite or smaller best-of-breed solutions (i.e., data warehouse appliance and dashboard) requires a lot of knowledge that is not always easily available. In addition to understanding implications related to implementation times, resources required to develop and to maintain a solution, and potential for growth, SMBs also need to match these aspects to their current environment and future business needs. This, in and of itself, may not differ from what any organization evaluating business intelligence has to go through, but mid-market companies have less room for error.
Solution providers help drive market trends based on their marketing initiatives and software development. Focusing on the next big technology wave may help with a product’s overall appeal; but, in many cases, mid-market organizations are far from being able to take advantage of what vendors have to offer. Instead of focusing on an incremental approach to BI, some companies are left to believe that they can have it all without any effort and are not given a realistic starting point.
Business intelligence for the mid-market is dynamic. A variety of solutions exists to meet the needs of any small or mid-sized company, whether they have a mature BI infrastructure or are new to analytics. Overall, any gaps that exist between what is being applied within organizations and what actually exists seems due to the lack of broad education initiatives to help businesses understand the benefits of business intelligence and the options that are available.
Luckily, the options for SMBs keep expanding, due to the increasing flexibility of licensing models, diverse best-of-breed applications, and more vendors focusing on providing value to small and mid-sized businesses. With the increasing use of social media, unstructured data, and operational analytics, general BI use will continue to become more dynamic. For SMBs without the constraints of large-scale BI implementations, the ability to take advantage of these newer solution offerings will be easier than that of their enterprise counterparts.
Recent articles by Lyndsay Wise