Smart and cheap: Business intelligence on a budget

You don't need new tools to gain insight into your business -- here are eight ways 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 found itself two years ago facing a serious threat to its business model.

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

"We've been adjusting to a changing landscape," says Jim Mulholland, vice president of IT, and that includes fundamentally changing its 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," the Web-based events-management module, Mulholland says.

As the economic downturn puts a strain on revenues -- some of its clients have seen revenue drops of 50% or more, according to Gartner Inc. -- management is leaning on business intelligence (BI) tools like never before.

Nick Millman, senior director for information management services at Accenture, agrees. "The tougher times that some of our clients face have accelerated [a trend toward] getting back to BI and how business can be improved." Executives are using them to find operational savings and to refocus their product lines and strategies, he says.

As business strategies change, business models need to reflect that, says Bill Hostmann, analyst at Gartner. "Deciders need the right information models so they can be effective."

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 IBM Cognos, SAS, SAP Business Objects or Microsoft Business Intelligence and other BI vendors. "Organizations are trying to utilize their existing business intelligence tools without going out and buying more hardware and software," Millman says.

Follow these eight tips, say Millman and others who have been down this road, and you too can squeeze more out of your existing tools while giving your business an extra boost.

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. and a former business intelligence consultant. Organizations end up with "different pockets of people doing similar analysis with different tools," and that leads to needless confusion, 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 the organization from a centralized business intelligence analysis and reporting 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. After a review, Abbattista says the company "killed off" two thirds of the tools in use at the insurer, including redundant products and the "falling stars," yesterday's hot tools that are no longer considered leading edge.

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