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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Getting the Most from BI Tools

Many BI users aren't taking advantage of the full capabilities of their BI tools and don't know how to improve. Happily, it doesn't take much effort to make your BI usage more effective.

If you scan BI technology publications and blogs, you will observe that many are focused on -- and hype -- new, "cutting-edge" technologies. Most are based on the assumption that the typical BI user is already chomping at the bit for the next big thing and wants to get ever more powerful features and capabilities.

There is no doubt that many users are always looking for better tools, techniques, and technologies as they feel limited by what is offered. However, they are a very small percentage of overall reporting and analysis users. The rest of us are nowhere near a desire to break the 100-yard dash limitation. Many don't even know how to get to the racetrack!

As a consultant and educator at some of the best universities in the country, I have trained hundreds of BI users in companies ranging from a few employees to the Fortune 100 in the past two decades. I have observed:

1. Most users are barely aware of, let alone use, the basic features of the available BI tools in their organization.

In one consulting assignment at a $60 billion company that had been using two BI tools for over five years, I had to teach the executives and managers how to utilize the most basic capabilities of those tools and which one to use in various scenarios. One of the tools had not even had a significant upgrade in seven years!

2. In many organizations, most analysts who primarily use Excel or other basic reporting tools don't know where to start in their search for better reporting and visualization capabilities.

If they do know what a BI tool can do, management is often simply not willing to invest in a BI tool due to cost consideration (as they tend to completely ignore the potential benefits). In one organization, an analyst used the knowledge he gained in my class (where I introduced a data visualization tool) to develop useful visualizations using his company's data. He then presented it to his boss to show the eye-popping analysis that could be performed with the basic functions of a relatively inexpensive tool.

3. It does not take much effort to master the basics and become productive.

In many of my data visualization courses, I have seen students with no BI experience develop reports and charts that have exceeded the complexity and quality typically associated with experienced developers

How can you make your BI usage effective?

Avoid some common misconceptions:

  • Don't assume cutting-edge technology is the key requirement
  • Don't assume you need an expensive BI infrastructure to get started
  • Don't assume big bang implementation is the way to go

Follow these best practices:

  • Learn how to crawl before you run
  • Start with a tool that can develop basic reports but can scale with your future need
  • Select a tool that can also develop visualizations
  • Use the trial version of a tool (most vendors provide this)
  • Develop a few reports and visualizations
  • Share your outputs with team members and supervisors
  • Join user groups to learn tips and tricks for the selected tool

I'd like to trumpet our tool for this strategy -- Lantern from Modemetric -- that is available in several architectures (VM, desktop, Web, cloud, and appliance), can be used for basic conventional and OLAP reporting, and has visualization capabilities. Whether you choose Lantern or another BI tool, my suggestions remain the same: understand your needs, start simple, and don't get distracted by the latest shiny BI objects.

Follow that path and you'll set yourself and your organization up for maximum BI success.

About the Author

Arshad Khan is the head of customer success at Modemetric. Has authored 15 books including six on BI. Has been an adjunct at University of CA (San Diego, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley Extensions), where he has taught courses on SAP, data warehousing, decision support systems, business intelligence, dashboards, and data visualization). You can contact the author at [email protected].

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