Morris Novello As Microsoft UK’s SQL Product Manager, Morris is responsible for product strategy, planning and marketing of Microsoft Business Intelligence solutions.
Question: We already have several Microsoft technologies within our business, each doing a great job in its own right. But we seem to spend too much time juggling information in different spreadsheets, databases and so forth. How can we use our existing software to get a better handle on our business and make us more competitive? - Andrew
Answer: Hi Andrew. The short answer to your question is Business Intelligence (BI). Or rather, using the Microsoft programs you already own to help you make smarter business decisions by having the right information at the right time and in the right format.
But let me begin by painting a picture of BI since it means different things to different people - and it can serve a variety of purposes.
First off, BI is not a product, but as the analyst Forrester defines it: “a set of methodologies, processes, architectures and technologies that transform raw data into meaningful and useful information to enable more effective strategic, tactical and operational insights and decision-making.”
Put more simply, that means collecting, consolidating and collating data you already hold in your line-of-business processes to help everyone - from sales and marketing to manufacturing and logistics - understand better what's going on day to day.
Using SQL Server to marshal your existing data, for instance, you can already establish how many goods of a certain type you’ve sold over a given period. BI goes a step further by enabling your business decision makers to compare those figures with the same period last year and trigger remedial actions if necessary.
Timely BI of this kind can deliver the level of insight you need to make your business more agile and responsive to rapidly changing conditions in your marketplace. For instance, by helping you discover that sales of a high value item have suddenly dropped, it may prompt you to quickly instigate a promotional campaign in the lead-up to Christmas and thereby boost sales of that item.
The two main analytic tools that give you this kind of visibility, agility and real-time access to your existing data are dashboards (for line-of-business performance indicators) and balanced scorecards (for example red-amber-green analyses for strategic planning). Together, these provide real-time snapshots of how the business is performing - intelligence that can then be shared across the company.
One of the most powerful examples of the real-time value of BI can be seen in the way F1 teams use BI dashboards to interpret the vast amounts of data retrieved from their cars during a race in order to give their drivers split-second instructions. It allows team bosses to compare the performance of their drivers during a race and extract microscopic benefit in a business where a hundredth of a second can be worth millions of pounds.
BI comes in different flavours
At Microsoft, we break BI down into three basic categories:
Self-service BI: Enabling business decision-makers at all levels to combine data from different sources to create reports and analyses in order to improve their individual performance. For example, a logistics manager might use the BI capabilities of a tool like Excel connected to a database like SQL Server to optimise the loading of trucks leaving a depot. Until recently, this level of flexibility was not readily available to individuals, which meant useful information often remained hidden because the specialist packages offered by the major BI vendors tended to be pre-structured and focused solely on end-to-end solutions. At Microsoft, we talk about the ‘democratisation’ of BI - or ‘BI for the masses’ if you like. In other words, the flexibility for individuals to create their own reports using familiar Microsoft programs like Excel.
Team BI: Allowing groups of employees or whole departments to generate and share reports automatically in real-time using information which is continually being updated in databases linked to their existing SharePoint Server.
Organisational BI: Generating the kind of 24/7 mission-critical information senior managers need to keep tabs on the business as a whole and to benchmark performance against the competition - for example, in terms of sales or staffing levels.
Whatever the strategic direction of your BI, for it to be of real value you must also have tactics in place to monitor and act upon the information it’s giving you. In other words, the output from your BI setup is what will benefit your organisation from an operational perspective.
You must therefore back up your strategic use of BI by establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) that trigger immediate actions - for example, an automatic email from the distribution manager to the manufacturing manager to say we’ll need to produce more snow shovels this month. By putting lots of ingredients like this into one pot, you can ensure that your company’s performance is actively managed with definable outcomes.
Unbeatable value proposition
The good news is that, unlike most of our competitors who typically offer stand-alone BI applications, Microsoft BI simply calls upon the familiar Microsoft programs you already use in your business. If you already own SharePoint (which includes SQL Server) and the Office suite (incorporating Excel), then you actually have the main components of Microsoft’s BI platform; all of which integrate perfectly with one another to give you fast deployment and high performance.
It means you can extract and share the same level of depth of knowledge about your operations as larger organisations who invest fortunes in expensive specialist packages. As Forrester observes, ‘Microsoft’s fewer, less complex features can be rolled out to and used by many more users [than competitive offerings]. Pricewise, it’s certainly an unbeatable value proposition.’
No longer complex or unaffordable
At the end of the day, the key to effective BI is the ability to share information as widely as possible across your business, which is why Microsoft’s objective is to bring BI to a much wider audience. Medium-sized businesses now have at their disposal the kind of BI that large enterprises have enjoyed for years - without worrying that the technology is too complex or unaffordable. It’s simply a question of making more effective use of the Microsoft technologies they already own.
I believe the analyst Forrester’s 2010 Enterprise BI Platforms Wave report hits the nail on the head when it concludes: “Enterprises that do not squeeze the last ounce of information out of their data stores and applications, and that do not focus on getting strategic, tactical and operational insight into their customers, products, business processes and operations, risk falling behind competitors.’
Your local Microsoft Partner will be able to help you get started. Let us know how you get on!