Business intelligence goes small: It's not just for the biggest shops anymore

IT pros in midsize businesses share their challenges and triumphs.

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Staffing up

The further that BI extends into an organization, the more support staff the technology requires, IT leaders and analysts say.

IT must ensure that the information that users access with self-service BI tools is high-quality, system-of-record data from CRM, ERP and other line-of-business applications. IT also has to provide seamless integration of BI with existing applications, databases and data-integration tools, Forrester's Kobielus points out.

What may be the most unique aspect of BI projects is that IT has to bring data analysts on board, as VIP's Grosz discovered. "Prior to the introduction of QlikView, we were not an analyst culture," he says. IT would create reports using spreadsheets, but the business simply wasn't interacting with that quantitative information. "They would just stack the printouts up and not use them to make decisions," he says.

business intelligence

With BI, there has been a dramatic cultural shift in the company. "The dashboarding [and the] ability to click on things and drill down has employees asking more questions," Grosz says. And this curiosity has sparked a need for data analysts to make sure the system is capable of delivering key performance indicators and handling user queries.

At Cubist, Murabito has seen the number of analysts on staff grow from two in the first year of BI deployment to 15 today -- exactly half his IT staff. "They sit in the business units and drive report requirements," he says.

Development is another area that has been a balancing act for Cubist. Murabito maintains two distinct developer groups of consultants -- one for Cognos and another for Spotfire.

Grosz rejects suggestions that the newer class of self-service BI tools does not require IT involvement. "You still need IT to support and maintain [critical parts of] BI, such as a robust data management process," he says.

More users, more training

Training can vex midsize businesses using BI, especially as they try to expand usage. Forrester analyst Boris Evelson estimates that currently only 3% to 4% of employees -- even in large, mature, analytics-savvy BI-using organizations -- actually use BI tools. But smaller businesses like Cubist report that as the tools become more accessible, those percentages rise rapidly.

Users tend to enjoy the fact that they can quickly customize their reports, graphs and dashboards to meet their specific needs, thereby getting faster intelligence that addresses their own decision points, according to Kobielus. But, as Murabito has found, cultivating such zeal for BI requires training.

For Cubist, the cost for IBM Cognos training alone stretched into six figures because regional business directors had to be trained locally. The company also created a host of materials such as self-help guides, which it has to maintain. "The trade-off for this upfront expense is self-sufficiency for users and lower [long-term] support costs," says Murabito.

Elie Tahari has taken a department-by-department approach to BI deployment and training. IT identifies "super users" in each department and trains them to handle simple ad-hoc queries using Cognos Query Studio. This ensures that users get their answers faster than they would if they had to channel everything through IT.

Collins says user training is ongoing at Lionsgate as new features of its BI system are turned on. "We implement new functionality, we send people to classes. It's part of our everyday life," he says.

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