Large enterprises have long used data analytics and business intelligence (BI) tools to help them identify trends, root out inefficiencies, and drive better performance across their operations. The advent of affordable cloud analytics platforms means that small businesses that want these same benefits have more data analytics options than ever.
[Learn more about data analytics: Can Predictive Analytics Help Your Small Business?]
But cloud analytics solutions can be a confusing realm for entrepreneurs. We asked experts to weigh in on what features small firms should look for when considering cloud-based analytics, and how to make the most of whichever cloud analytics system they choose.
Cloud Analytics Features
The cloud analytics market is evolving very rapidly, with new players offering their own twist on the conventional wisdom. Kathleen Douglas, executive vice president of global sales and alliances at DrivenBI, a cloud-based analytics platform, says that self-service capability is something small business owners should definitely look for as they shop among the growing field of cloud analytics solutions.
“Business users are the ones who know the most about their own data, and they want to be able to get their hands on the information,” she says. Be sure to ask any cloud analytics providers on your short list how their platform helps you harvest and structure the data yourself. That capability will let you adjust the flow of information as your requirements change. "You need the right tool to do that," says Douglas.
If we’re being candid, most small businesses may not require the kind of wide-ranging data analytics systems that enterprises use. According to Luis Murguia, senior vice president and general manager at SAP Business One, even cloud analytics platforms that have been designed with more modest uses in mind may still exceed the infrastructure requirements and programming capabilities of smaller companies.
The best analytics tools, he says, might be hiding in plain sight. “If I were a small business owner, I would look at the systems that I already use to run my company—accounts payable, etc.—because those same systems might have advanced business intelligence capabilities right off the bat,” he says.
Companies often build analytic tools into business systems as a way to give users insight into the data they're already collecting. “By doing that, the system handles the effort of implementing data analytics, and it assures data integrity,” Murguia explains. Not only do many of these business systems rely on cloud-based computing power as part of their cost-effective structure, they also offer deep insight into the data your team already holds. The combination reduces the time, staffing, and IT challenges that small businesses often face when trying to standardize multiple data streams to use in a single, overarching system.
Cloud Analytics: Future Features
Analytics is far enough removed from the everyday grind that some business owners may not consider how a cloud analytics system can help them be more efficient. Data analysis is a dynamic world and, when considering a cloud analytics platform, it makes sense to think about features and capabilities you might need down the road.
“Small business owners should definitely consider mobility,” says Douglas. Finding new revenue opportunities and improving performance doesn’t happen only when you’re sitting at a desk. “Business owners should be sure to look at cloud analytics platforms that provide 100 percent mobility, whether your employees work on laptops, or tablets, or smartphones. That capability gives them access to the analysis they need no matter their location,” she says.
As a business evolves and new needs and uses for data analytics come into focus, keeping up with increasing information streams presents new difficulties. “A small business owner doesn’t have the time to deploy people to manage data,” says Murguia. But, he adds, that doesn’t mean entrepreneurs need to watch analytics opportunities pass them by.
“A small business can drive value by building a dashboard that uses its own key performance indicators (KPI) and other metrics,” he says. This approach offers an alternative approach for future growth that doesn’t rely on investing in a single BI system now—or even installing one later. By leveraging in-house talent, if it’s available, or turning to external experts, entrepreneurs can continue to take advantage of the useful analytics tools they have now even as their business matures.
Clean Data Drives Good Analytics
Whether you select a dedicated cloud analytics platform or plan to use the tools already available through your existing systems, Douglas believes that every successful analytics initiative starts with good data.
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“Small business owners should look at their data to understand the best way they can use it for analytics,” she says. How much detail do you want from your data? Where does the data come from and who owns it? “You also need to know how frequently it will arrive and how frequently you need to refresh it,” Douglas adds. Nailing down these details lets small business owners fine tune their data sources and to ensure they feed quality information into the cloud analytics platform.
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from food service to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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