Insights from Superior Consulting Services’ Panel Discussion on BI
On January 20, 2011, Superior Consulting Services (SCS) hosted a lively and informative panel discussion on business intelligence (BI). The goal was to bring together Midwestern business leaders to analyze the role of BI today as well as to share best practices and ideas on how it can best be leveraged to improve both business operations and performance.
A full house and nonstop, energetic discussion among the panel and audience were all clear evidence of how important BI has become. The morning kicked off with a presentation of the results from the SCS Pulse Survey, “The Impact and Influence of Business Intelligence.” Next, Brian Larson, SCS’ VP of Technology and BI Practice Manager led a Q&A with three very thoughtful IT executive panelists:
- John Bredesen, Information Technology Manager – Minnetronix
- Brian Carlson, IS Manager, Application Development and Support – Federated Insurance
- Brian Lunde, Director of Information Technology – LifeSource
Though the panel discussion was only an hour long and took place in the early morning, good ideas and insights were in rich supply. Below you will find a summary of the major BI topics covered during the event and ideas for how your business can improve how it manages and leverages business intelligence. Thank you again to our clever panelists who generously shared the ideas and insights reported below.
BI Should Be About the Future
One of the first themes of the BI discussion was about “looking forward.” The panel addressed the fact that many businesses study only what has happened. For example, they look at their data to examine what happened last month or last quarter, but they aren’t using data to look forward. The panel and the audience agreed that while BI can offer important insight into past decisions and performance, its most important job is to inform and guide the future.
The panel advised the audience that if they only focused on the past, they are missing a valuable opportunity to inform the future and increase competitiveness through better forecasting and predictive analysis.
Be Realistic and Start Small
When the panel began the discussion about using BI to look forward, audience members responded with questions about cost and scope of data. After all, businesses may require external data (input from trade partners, customers, government sources, maybe even the weather service) to predict business performance. How big and expensive can and should BI solutions get?
The panel agreed that incorporating external data can increase the cost of a BI solution. The advice to the audience was to be realistic when looking at cost versus expected benefit from a BI solution. The best approach to BI is to start small by creating a solution that answers a limited set of key business questions, then grow your solution as you realize a return on investment. Just as the three executive panelists use their BI systems differently within their organizations, BI systems and solutions come in all shapes and sizes.
As a business leader, you must determine what information can reasonably be gathered and analyzed and at what cost. After that, it’s a matter of business realism: the investment must be in line with the expected benefit. In many cases, it is useful to bring in a third-party specialist to help your organization understand the scope and costs of your BI strategy and scale appropriately to see a satisfactory return.
Simplify to Secure
Maintaining high security and confidentiality standards was an important concern for the audience. The panel offered some excellent and straightforward advice when it comes to securely managing BI data, which included:
- In the majority of cases, the capture of individual information, such as birthdates or social security numbers, is not necessary for the analysis done by the BI systems. Therefore, information can be “de-identified” as it is loaded into the BI system.
- Another recommendation was to house data in aggregate rather than at individual levels. Aggregated data remains valuable for BI purposes but individually identified information is not available through the BI system.
IT & the Business Both Have Roles
It was clear that both IT personnel and the business personnel within an organization must be champions of BI for it to succeed. IT, for example, can gather, store and build solutions for analyzing and reporting data. But that doesn’t mean IT understands what all the data means. Business-side team members are essential to good data analysis. Conversely, business teams often understand that they need better reports and analysis but don’t understand the complexities of gathering or managing the data. Rather than one group driving the BI effort, the panel concurred that a joint approach supported and led by both IT and business team members is the best recipe for BI success.
How to Incorporate Users into the Process
After the discussion on the roles that IT and business stakeholders must play in BI, some audience members asked for input on a common BI challenge: How do you get to the point where you can clearly understand and deliver what business stakeholders want from their BI? One panelist described an iterative approach which has proved highly effective within his organization. He and his IT team leverage their business knowledge to create an initial example report or dashboard for the business group. Then he allows the user group to study and analyze it. From there the business group makes adjustments, coming back with a new iteration each time until they have the right solution. This back and forth is an education for both teams and the iterative approach lessens the chance that major analytical needs are being overlooked.
As the panel discussion came to a conclusion, questions from the audience once again pointed toward the challenge of measuring the ROI of BI solutions. After all, it can be very hard to put a price on a good decision or an improved process. The message for the audience was to remember that it can take time to see the ROI from BI efforts. However, strong strategy and planning from IT and business teams, plus a very good understanding of what the organization wants from its BI solution and an iterative approach can ensure that those results (while not immediate) are effectively achieved.
More BI Insights to Come
The energy at the BI Panel event combined with keen interest in the BI results have confirmed to SCS that this is an important topic for our clients and partners. For that reason, we will continue to explore BI issues in surveys and events in the future. In the meantime, we encourage you to send your BI questions or comments to SCS. If BI is something your organization is considering or struggling with, let the BI experts at SCS help you reach an intelligent and effective solution.