If the past three decades tell us anything, it’s that we’re indeed deep into the “Information Age.” Business intelligence and dashboard reporting tools are all the rage. Why? Because data is everywhere, coming from virtually everything. Around the clock connectivity and the Internet of Things (“IoT”) have digitally connected everything from cars and appliances to countries and economies.
Artificial intelligence (“AI”) is now using data to perform and automate tasks that historically required human interaction, like visual perception (e.g. virtual reality), speech recognition, business decision-making and language translation.
Data for Data’s Sake is Useless
All of that data coming from so many sources also means we’re knee-deep in data overload. The truth is, data for data’s sake is useless. More data isn’t necessarily better if you cannot deduce meaningful conclusions from it.
The other truth is that the seamless integration of technologies and systems to make data accessible and useful has been, for many companies, a bag full of broken promises.
By 2014, the world’s capacity to store information reached 5 zettabytes. That’s the equivalent of 4,500 stacks of printed books extending from the earth to the sun… some 92.96 million miles (146 million kilometers).
While storing so much data is a big enough challenge, actually collecting and crunching data to create useful intelligence is an even bigger one.
So are you still chasing data sitting in separate CRM and accounting systems? Are you still manually managing and manipulating data in Excel spreadsheets? Are you still fighting to find trends and weak points in your disconnected eCommerce and inventory systems?
While the world’s largest companies have the resources (budget and people) to collect, analyze and report back on such disparate data — those efforts are often time consuming and can slow the company’s responsiveness to changing marketing conditions.
Then there’s the rest of us: the small and mid-sized company ‘masses’ who may be able to move faster in response to changing market dynamics, but who often lack the necessary in-house expertise and budget resources to effectively derive intelligence from raw data.
BI is the ‘Holy Grail’ of the Information Age
The point is: the holy grail of having all systems neatly integrated and useful analytics spitting back out has not quite come to fruition. Many organizations still have data siloed across disparate systems — all quite necessary to efficiently run the business, of course — but siloed, nonetheless.
Whatever your business type or industry, no doubt your company needs to find faster, better, smarter ways to create actionable intelligence from primary raw data sources.
According to CIO Magazine, business intelligence is an umbrella term used to describe software applications that help analyze and make sense of an organization’s raw data. When done right, business intelligence can help speed and improve decision-making, discover areas of waste and potential cost reduction, identify new business and revenue opportunities, and more.
Surprisingly, BI is older than you might think. Hans Peter Luhn, a researcher at IBM, coined the term in 1958 after seeing the connections that BI made possible, and the opportunities to adjust course and fine-tune decisions to reach strategic goals. This was — and still is — the basic premise of BI.
Such a big need for using data to our advantage drove an onslaught of BI tools to market. According to research analyst firm, Gartner, the BI and analytics software market is expected to reach $18.3 billion by the end of 2017.
Now companies are not only paralyzed by their vast volumes of data, they’re paralyzed by which BI and analytics software tool(s) to use. Fortunately there are some key features to look out for that will set you ahead of the pack and expedite your tool evaluation process.
- Cloud based and mobile ready
The world is moving fast, and uninterrupted access to business analytics is mission critical. Be sure the tool is cloud based and offers a mobile application version for access through a browser, tablet or phone. Every dashboard should be fully responsive and adapt to any size screen, in landscape or portrait, via your 4G/LTE network or public Wi-Fi. Essentially make sure you’re never without your reports again.
- Real-time data feeds
The most valuable tools connect data and feed it into the reporting system in real or near-real time. Old data doesn’t help much, does it? And by today’s standards, ‘old’ could be only days or even hours. Customers demand products, services, information and response time from a company quickly, as do employees. If your tool is still ‘batch’ processing data, it’s time to make a change.
- Easy visualization with drag and drop editing
If it’s not easy, it won’t get used. Be sure your tool has simple drag and drop capabilities and indicators on your workspace so you can connect data from any source. You should be able to create live, visualized dashboards and reports with just a few clicks. If you need consultants to create visualized dashboards and reports from your system, it may be time to evaluate other tools.
- Automated data refreshes
You should be able to easily (aka, without expensive consultants) connect to a large number of systems and databases like Google Analytics, Facebook, Salesforce, Oracle, MySQL and files on Dropbox, Google Drive and others, and schedule refresh dates and times that make the most sense for your business, team or users.
- Scheduling of dashboard publications
Although there’s no ‘set it and forget it’ in business analytics, modern tools should allow you to create schedules of various dashboards and automate the publication of them to users or groups of users.
- Cross platform access (Windows, Mac, Linux compatibility)
Most companies have a complicated mix of legacy and newer systems, and therefore, often a complicated rollout of tools. Be sure your tool allows for cross-platform compatibility so there are no surprises after deployment, like half of your company without access.
- Custom alert options
Every business has unique KPIs it needs to track, and specific users that need certain reports on demand. Modern BI tools allow you to set custom alerts for various user types and datasets so anyone on any team gets immediate notifications of the triggers they need to see around the clock.
- Per user AND per team data views
Drill down interactions let you dig into your charts, indicators and tables, display sub tables, other dashboards and even websites. You should be able to display data per user, or per team of users, on any given dashboard so that every user sees their own data.
It’s even better if you can zoom in and out of charts, easily move time scales, group by months, quarters and/or years all in a single click. Flexibility and usability are key — you should have all the control you need at the macro and micro levels.
There are plenty of BI and dashboard reporting tools with many other features, but these will offer the most value, flexibility and ROI for your business.
Finally, be sure to look for a BI dashboard tool that offers a free trial so you have the option to test its ease of use, connectivity and the above features with your company’s live data.