Why do we need business intelligence?

A question asked by businesses on a consistent basis is around the need for Business Intelligence. So many companies “get by” importing and analyzing data in Excel. Answers are derived, but are they always the correct answers – or simply the answers we were wanting to produce? Are the answers timely? How many hours were needed to generate the needed insights? Did we bring in all the necessary parts of the data? The biggest question might be – are we simply going through the motions?

So, what is the benefit of Business Intelligence?

The Initial Lift

Business Intelligence takes time on the front end to produce a quick analysis of data when decision-makers need it. For Business Intelligence to be successful within an organization, a central data repository, such as a database or data warehouse, needs to be architected and implemented in a manner that will allow for ease of reporting.

The data warehouse will pull in data from multiple sources across the business. An example of some of these sources will be a CRM (i.e., Salesforce, HubSpot, Dynamics), an ERP (i.e., Oracle, Netsuite), or various marketing platforms (i.e., Google Adwords, Yahoo Ads, HubSpot). Bringing all necessary data points into a central repository offers the ability to look at trends across different systems. An example from some of the systems mentioned above would be comparing customer acquisition in a specific region to the allocated marketing effort.

Quick Analysis of Data

Once data has been brought into the warehouse, you can now focus on reporting. Having all your data in a single spot makes it easier to distribute to the necessary individuals. A data warehouse also allows you to provide the data in a variety of ways. A business intelligence visualization tool can then be used to allow employees to quickly analyze their data. Within the tool, users can apply quick filters, compare specific business units, or view charts and trends. Reports are already set up and defined so the employee does not have to go through the process of creating VLOOKUPS and SUMIFS in Excel.

This does not mean that the people within the organization will not want Excel or will not have access to their data in Excel. Within the visualization tool, or through scheduled jobs, they will be able to export their data to Excel for further discovery and validation. The difference is that this step occurs after business rules and logic have been applied to the data, making analysis in Excel much faster.

Source of Truth

Once we are at the point of decision-makers using the standard reports, we know the data they are looking at can be trusted since it has been cleansed and reviewed. Business intelligence requires a data quality process to establish reports that have been reviewed and verified by the business owners and domain experts. If those rules were to be changed in the future, they would need to go through a similar process to be validated. This way, we have a source of truth when making data-driven decisions.
Excel is a great tool; however, because of the ease to input data, we can often prove out the numbers that we are trying to achieve. Having a process where reports and data are validated by the business, gives the assurance that everyone in the business is looking at the report the same way and understands the data being provided.

In the process of validating data, we can come up with standard definitions for our metrics. For example, perhaps one person defines customer lifetime values differently than another employee within the organization. Having a single source for these metrics forces decision-makers to have the necessary conversations about how certain metrics are defined. Everyone is then working off the same playbook moving forward.

Another example of having a source of truth comes in establishing a master data management process to help standardize various units throughout the business. An example of this is determining a single view of a customer. We may have a customer come through our marketing platform known as Mark A; in our CRM he is known as Mark Anderson; in our financial system, he is Marcus Anderson. Having master data management in place, we can ensure that we can follow a customer, or potential customer, throughout each touchpoint that he or she had within the company. This allows us to remove duplicates and get a single source of truth for a customer, company, distributor, and so on.

Timely Data and Automation

With a data warehouse, validated processes, standard metric definitions, and master data management in place, we can now verify that data is provided to decision-makers how, when, and where they need it. Having a standardized process allows for data automation to occur. This automation starts with the pulling of data from the various systems, all the way to providing the employees with reports. The automated process removes hours of manual data consolidation and calculation, which, in turn, accelerates the decision-making process. Data is scheduled and updated as needed. Those viewing the reports know exactly where to go for their data needs and when their data was last updated.

Some data that we want to view in the reports does not come from within a source system but is manual input data. Think lists within Excel. With a data warehouse in place, we can pull in user input fields and use them as part of our reporting. This gives the business the ability to own and control mapping and attribute tables.

One benefit of having standardized reporting using these fields is that we are then able to validate those data inputs. If a number was input with a comma instead of a period, the automation process would catch the error and throw a flag for that to be rectified. Also, having more eyes on the manual input data will naturally clean up our data input process as those errors will be more evident in the final report.

Pulling the data into a single repository, architecting the warehouse, and setting up the processes for reporting is a sizeable lift; however, the process will pay dividends as people within the organization are able to efficiently make decisions that will drive the business forward.

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