Is Business Intelligence for Small Business, Too? - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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BI's Additional Costs

But monthly fees are not the only costs involved. SaaS does not entirely eliminate upfront investments. "There is still a big investment of time and energy in learning how to use the solution effectively," said McCabe.

And while SaaS offerings and down-market licensed software solutions such as QlikView simplify the implementation process, there are still some unavoidable preliminary steps to go through -- with associated costs in both time and money.

"This is not an area where you can just slap something in," McCabe said. "You need to do your homework.

Much of the value of BI solutions comes from integrating data from multiple sources into one system. Most business intelligence vendors have "connectors" – small software programs -- for extracting data from commonly used applications such as Salesforce.com and Netsuite.

Business Intelligence Requires Clean, Consistent Data

Some SaaS providers charge separately to use these connectors. Or you might have to hire the vendor or an outside consultant to write a new connector for an application for which one doesn't already exist.

Data from all sources must also be "clean" -- free of errors and inconsistencies -- and it must all use the same conventions. For example, if IBM is a customer and one operational system refers to the company as IBM and the other as International Business Machines, you could end up with duplicate entries that invalidate results.

The process of cleaning and 'normalizing' data to eliminate these and other kinds of problems can be time consuming and labor intensive.

Much of the complexity that remains in BI systems, despite the simplifying efforts of the QlikTechs and myDIALS, stems from this need to integrate and normalize data. If you think the integration effort required makes it too complex, there are second-best alternatives.

Built-in BI

As McCabe pointed out, many if not most small business software solutions already include analytics features that deliver some of the same kind of reporting and "dashboarding" as BI solutions.

"I think a lot of the time, small businesses may not even be taking advantage of what's in the solutions they already have," she said. "So that's a place to start: Can I use the core [programs] I already have running my business? Will that give me the level of visibility I need? Or do I need something that can bring [data] together from a couple of [applications]/"

BI vendors naturally argue that the analytics features built into operational systems such as CRM and accounting solutions are far too limited, providing only a one-dimensional view of your business.

Business Intelligence: Once You Decide

If the answer is that you do need an integrated business intelligence solution, you should first engage with the vendors of the software you use or the value added resellers (VARs) or consultants from whom you buy software and hardware, McCabe said.

Most SaaS-based BI vendors -- and even licensed software vendors, as we saw in the case of QlikTech -- let you try before you buy. McCabe recommends that you take advantage of that.

Some vendors even offer free limited-function BI tools, including enterprise software vendor SAP with its BusinessObjects OnDemand.

A new study from McCabe's company (unpublished and with only preliminary results at the time of writing) suggests that small businesses do see a need for more visibility into their businesses. But few make the leap to implementing a business intelligence solution.

Will that change? Will business intelligence become less complicated -- and less expensive? Our guess is yes. Most of the traditional vendors of BI solutions are looking for ways to attract small businesses -- witness SAP -- and SaaS-based solutions have proliferated.

Business intelligence is not something to enter into lightly, but for some small businesses it could be the key to moving to the next level.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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This article was originally published on July 14, 2010

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