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.

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

6. 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 a multiyear view of tax data on a single screen. "That proved to be a timesaver," she says.

Her group also worked to combine data from the state's income processing and audit systems, relieving analysts of the need to do exception report analyses. 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.

Instead, the integrated systems automatically resolve the problem between themselves and process the claim in about two minutes -- without staff involvement. Since July 2008, the department has saved approximately 1,750 hours of staff time and taxpayers get their refunds faster, says Pat Lashore, administrator of the department's technology services division.

In a similar vein, Allstate has had success pushing report-creation and -customization capabilities out to end users through the deployment of dashboards. Previously, the company had a centralized report-writing function within IT, and "it took a lot longer to get answers into the hands of business people," Abbattista says. Now his team creates dashboards, walks users through the basics of using the tool and lets them do the rest.

Back in the IT department, the self-service BI tools helped Abbattista's team get out of the report-building business and clear out a long backlog of report requests. Through the self-service initiative and data warehouse consolidation, he has reduced head count by two-thirds while expanding access to self-service BI tools to 25,000 users.

7. Help Users Understand the Data, Not Just the Tools

Scaling up the number of users who have access to BI tools won't help unless people know how to use those tools. But that's not the biggest issue when it comes to educating users. "The trend has been for the front end to get simpler and more intuitive," Millman says. And certainly dashboards have helped in that regard.

"What's often missing is the explanation of where the data comes from and how you can use it to derive some insight," Millman says.

For example, the data generated by Creativity's CubiScan system was foreign to business people in the back office. "We have to explain what the data points are and what the data points mean," Mulholland says.

Allstate focuses on building that knowledge one user at a time. "We build out initial capabilities with front-line managers and people in the trenches," Abbattista says. "They then become the consultants to people around them.

"It's really [about] teaching people to mine for value," Abbattista explains. In that respect, he says, "I don't think we'll ever be done with our BI efforts."

This version of this story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition. It's an edited version of an article that first appeared on

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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