BI on a Budget

You don't need new analytic tools to gain insight into your business. Here's how to make the most of what you've got.

Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Or do without." That adage from the Great Depression is making a comeback these days among corporations that are digging deep to maintain profitability using business tools they already have in-house.

One of those companies is Creativity Inc., which two years ago was facing a serious threat to its business model.

The company, which designs crafting products and markets and distributes its wares to specialty retailers, was being undercut by overseas manufacturers as retailers began to buy direct. The trend preceded the current economic downturn, but it hit with renewed vigor when the recession deepened.

"We've been adjusting to a changing landscape," says Jim Mulholland, vice president of IT, and that includes fundamentally changing the Van Nuys, Calif., company's product strategy.

To find more profitable, less commodity-driven products, and to cut operating costs, Creativity turned to its existing stable of Cognos business intelligence software. "We made no new purchases at all. We are taking advantage of different parts of the Cognos system, like Event Studio," a Web-based events-management module, Mulholland says.

The economy has companies scrambling to use BI to find operational savings and to refocus their product lines and strategies, says Nick Millman, senior director for information management services at Accenture Ltd.

But IT organizations aren't rushing to buy new business intelligence software or build new data warehouses. Instead, they're digging deeper and doing more with existing tools from BI vendors such as IBM's Cognos unit, SAS Institute Inc., SAP AG's Business Objects unit and Microsoft Corp. "Organizations are trying to utilize their existing business intelligence tools without going out and buying more hardware and software," Millman says.

Millman and others suggest the following strategies to squeeze more out of your existing tools while giving your business an extra boost.

1. Consolidate Your Tools

"Usually people have more tools than they need, and that can be distracting," says Anthony Abbattista, vice president of technology solutions at Allstate Insurance Co. in Northbrook, Ill., and a former business intelligence consultant. Those organizations end up with "different pockets of people doing similar analysis with different tools," he says.

His recommendation: Consolidate, and be aggressive about it. "Get to the minimum number of tools you need to get the job done."

Over the past few years, Abbattista has overseen the consolidation of 13 data warehouses down to just two and has pushed Allstate from a centralized business intelligence function to a self-service model based on the deployment of customizable dashboards.

Settling on a standardized set of tools was the first step toward empowering business managers and analysts. Abbattista says the company "killed off" two-thirds of the tools it was using, including redundant products and "falling stars" -- yesterday's hot tools that are no longer considered leading-edge.

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