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.

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Cost-cutting efforts need to be driven by the business side as well -- another area where creative use of existing BI tools can come into play. "It's important to understand who the more profitable customer segments are, how profitable your products and services are and areas to target for cost savings," Millman says.

Centralize business intelligence

To help find the right areas of focus, Creativity's Mulholland started an analytical center for excellence, a group that includes representatives from different parts of the business, from sales to operations. "You're trying to elevate the IQ of everybody in your company in terms of knowing the key business metrics and measuring them accurately and in a timely way across all areas of the business," he says.

Moving towards that goal, Creativity developed common tool sets and profitability models for its sales and finance groups. Reports are pushed to the desktops and viewed in dashboard applications. From there, Mulholland says, users "can go in and do further analysis."

IBM has been promoting such centers among its Cognos customers as a way to create a standardized set of models across the enterprise using existing business intelligence tools. A common set of BI dashboards developed for one department, for example, can be extended for use with others. In this way, new groups don't have to reinvent the wheel and can get up and running more quickly.

BI tools also are underutilized by role. Business stakeholders may view BI as more of an IT-driven reporting and analysis tool rather than as a business tool. Or the tools may be valued by IT and only one or two other groups, such as finance. As an antidote, "what we've seen is some companies that are looking across business processes and setting up competency centers that start to foster collaboration and dialog across business units," says Anne Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS.

Put more data in your warehouse

When it comes to data warehouses, the current downturn is a great time for organizations to review what they're tracking and to add more data from business operations into the hopper to find additional savings. Just be very selective about what you add, experts advise.

Milley suggests looking at adding data from call centers, Web logs or other sources. The question companies have to ask in these times, she says, is, "What do I have that I can get [into the data warehouse] at a relatively low cost?"

As sales slowed at Creativity during the downturn, Mulholland and the center for excellence team changed its focus from keeping up with growth to cost cutting. One of those projects involved providing a feedback loop between its back-end ERP system and the CubiScan system it uses for shipping.

CubiScan is a laser-based scanning and weight-measurement system used to ensure that goods are properly packaged to meet customer specifications. (If they're not, the fees can be "considerable," Mulholland says.) While the ERP system issued package instructions with the orders, the standalone CubiScan system wasn't returning data on whether shipments were actually packaged properly -- and many were not. "There was no feedback loop," Mulholland says.

The IT team used the Cognos ETL tool (extraction, transformation and load) to bring the CubiScan data into its data warehouse and then built exception reports for shipments where the margins and tolerances for package dimensions hadn't been met. Mulholland expects the project, currently in deployment, to pay for itself in three to five months.

Make better use of data you already have

In some cases, doing "more with less" may simply be a matter of taking data that users already have and presenting it to them in a more useful way. At the Wisconsin Department of Revenue's Business Intelligence Services Bureau, director Janna Baganz says her organization found a way to present multi-year view of tax data on a single screen. "That proved to be a time-saver," she says.

Her group also worked to combine data from the state's income processing and audit systems, taking the need for exception report analysis out of the user's hands. Now when certain business rules kick out a tax return from the processing system, the staff no longer spends 20 minutes running a manual report on another system and then reviewing it to resolve the issue.

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