Maximizing BI Investments by Increasing Access

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In May 2008, a BusinessWeek study indicated that organizations realize greater returns when business intelligence (BI) tools are accessible across the enterprise. Specifically, the report found that the most significant return on investment (ROI) comes from extending these tools to the employees on the front lines, such as telemarketers and collections staff. And, when implemented successfully, BI investments provide organizations with 2.4 times the market returns of other businesses in their industry.

So, if it is simply a matter of making BI more widely accessible, why isn't it common practice? Like most technology decisions in business, there is not one simple answer. While some reasons involve cultural, structural or other company-specific attributes, there are several universal reasons why companies do not give broader access to information. Understanding these reasons will help explain why the vast majority of BI solutions -- 87 percent, according to a 2007 NCC BI Rapid Survey Report -- fail to meet original expectations and, therefore, become a source of frustration rather than ROI. Most notably among these are the limited integration of key data sources, concerns of security and compliance issues involved in information sharing, and the difficulty of the front-line personnel to use these overly complex systems in a meaningful way.

A single source of truth

Access to mission-critical data throughout an enterprise is essential in order to fully leverage investments in information systems. Today, the data integrated by most BI solutions is drawn primarily from central repositories like ERP and CRM systems. Organizations relying on these systems of record often overlook the data stored in secondary stores, such as personal spreadsheets, departmental databases and other ad hoc or shadow systems that likely reside on individual users' desktops. While general-ledger data is essential, the data locked within these secondary systems often carries equivalent importance for decision-makers.

Without complete data transparency across both secondary and primary data repositories, several problems can arise. Most frequently, organizations see accounting discrepancies and errors. Personnel shifts also highlight problems, where the individual responsible for managing that system leaves the organization without clearly outlining how to access and make sense of the data within it. In some very unfortunate situations, lack of transparency opens up opportunity for fraud and regulatory consequences. Above all, limiting a decision maker's access to only primary data sources provides an incomplete picture of the data and denies that individual the mission-critical information that can lead to better strategic insights and actions.

Proper integration of all data resources into the BI solution allows organizations to create a single source of truth -- a single access point to all data critical in understanding the strategic whole. When organizations provide a broad group of employees with access to this single source of truth, the organization can truly leverage its investment in data. The complete information empowers those workers to add strategic value to their decision making and allows for ultimate attainment of ROI.

Maintaining security in an open environment

Increased data transparency and widespread accessibility rightly set off alarms for management in terms of both security and compliance. Since this open access is critical to achieving ROI, secure but open data deployment should be a required element when evaluating BI options. Broad access to corporate data requires multiple levels of security.

In BI, the user interface (UI), an element usually considered only for ease of use, also can be an important component in setting usage rights that ensure security. A user interface that allows for the contextual disclosure of information based on an individual's job title and responsibilities plays an important role in organizational security. These settings are pre-determined by system administrators or supervisors before the user logs into the software for the first time based on the need of the user to see certain data. In this way, organizations can safely regulate who is accessing various data libraries while also making the software more accessible to users across the enterprise. These restrictions ensure privacy and security needs are fulfilled.

For instance, an investor relations employee may need access to some level of HR data about the demographic mix or pay scale of overall employees. They would be restricted, however, from seeing more detailed information, such as an individual employee's salary.

Ironically, the practice of limiting access to information can be detrimental to security because sensitive reports and database access are sometimes shared behind the scenes in the spirit of helping people do their jobs better. Most of us in business have seen myriad "confidential" reports that were not intended for wide distribution, yet were circulated to a larger than intended group. When access is provided but well controlled through security elements like passwords and inherent BI features like contextualized disclosure, security can be strategically managed and increased ROI can be achieved.

BI solutions must also include features to maintain data integrity, another important element of security. Providing employees with broader access to relevant information for the purpose of analysis and reporting should not extend to the ability to change or alter the original data source. The systems of record can be extended, sliced and diced, while the data itself remains true to its original form.

When access is provided but well controlled through security elements like passwords and inherent BI features like contextualized disclosure, security can be strategically managed. By allowing users to securely build out these systems, they are not only better able to meet their individual job responsibilities but they are also able to reduce or eliminate shadow systems entirely -- systems that can lead to inaccuracy, lost information, or fraud. Both measure help to ensure that ROI is achieved through secure, yet widespread and complete data access.

The barrier of complexity

Though most enterprise-level BI solutions possess powerful mining, reporting and analysis capabilities, they are usually hidden behind complex UIs, which overwhelm users with the number of features and functions presented, and require IT expertise, extensive training and significant investment to use correctly. These are the significant hidden and recurring costs of BI that must be borne each time a new staff member is hired and involve both the cost of training and the productivity lost during the training period.

In order to maximize ROI, organizations need to make usability a key consideration in BI decisions. According to a 2007 Gartner study, 65 percent of the organizations surveyed reported that BI is too complex and 69 percent reported they lack the skills necessary to use it. If a system cannot be effectively used, a company cannot truly capitalize on its data investments.

To empower a wider range of users throughout the enterprise, a BI platform must possess an interface that is both customizable and self-evident to eliminate the barrier of training -- not only for those with IT expertise but also for first-time, non-technical users. Ideal models for user-obvious interfaces exist in the consumer space. The iPod has a simple yet elegant UI, which requires little to no training to use effectively. Google is one of the most powerful search engines, yet its interface consists of a simple search box on a white page, with various levels of search capability exposed as the user becomes more knowledgeable. These examples showcase the level of usability necessary in a BI solution to maximize investment.

In a BI platform, there are four key design considerations to look for that can reduce complexity and minimize training. These include the contextual presentation of information, progressive disclosure, adaptable settings and the combination of visual, auditory and written cues.

Contextual presentation of information serves an important security capacity in BI solutions, as discussed earlier. However, it also serves as a fundamental role in the design of a user-obvious BI tool. Limiting data access to only those libraries that are relevant to a particular user prevents the user from becoming distracted or overwhelmed by unnecessary information.

Progressive disclosure of information and functionally is a design approach that also avoids overwhelming users and allows them to increase their options in direct proportion to their skill level. Additional functionality is hidden from the screen to avoid confusion and to make the interface inviting until the user has shown they are ready to take on more advanced elements.

Visually compelling features are another important UI design consideration. These features, such as animation, captivate users, increasing their attention spans. Engaged users stay and play with the BI platform and remain patient if faced with challenges. Immediate results reinforce user interest and encourage them to play again. The more frequently they interact with a solution, the more their skill level advances and the more likely they are to apply the software to their day-to-day job responsibilities.

A BI solution should allow for a certain amount of customization by the user. For instance, interactive help tools like wizards and tutorials guide the user experience. They are sensitive to the context in which they are used, displaying only information relevant to the functionality on the main screen. Adaptable features like these can be activated and deactivated depending on the user's needs at the time, and allow users to customize the software to best suit their skill level and preference.

Finally, visual, auditory and written cues should be employed together to confirm and promote user actions. These cues guide users to the next step, alert them to errors and help to redirect incorrect courses of action. A BI solution should employ a combination of these cues to help engage the user on multiple levels.

Combined, these features fuel user interest, which leads to retention and, ultimately, to greater adoption rates and wider accessibility. In addition to increasing user adoption rates and enabling BI to reach a broader audience, a shortened learning curve will also lead organizations to faster ROI achievement. As more users begin reporting on and analyzing data with BI tools, organizations are able to uncover potential cost-saving and revenue-generating measures more quickly and efficiently. Tools with user-obvious elements save companies time and money during implementation since no training is required.

Realizing ROI

BI solutions that allow for universal accessibility to all data sources without sacrificing security empower users and strengthen ROI. With such solutions, users can finally tap into the vast stores of knowledge that exist in every organization, immensely improving strategic decision-making throughout the enterprise.

With greater adoption of BI tools by a broader audience for reporting and analysis, organizations are able to expose potential cost-saving or revenue-generating measures quickly and efficiently. Easy-to-use tools also save companies time and money during implementation and transition since minimal training is required. In general, users also take less time to complete the same tasks.

Intuitive software enables subject matter experts to create their own reports and apply their invaluable knowledge easily. Additionally, increased access to different types of data from previously untouched secondary data sources considerably deepens organizational knowledge.

Common access-control features and enhanced UI design elements like contextual disclosure eliminate security and compliance concerns that have previously derailed universal access. Further, they cut down on the instances of error or, in more unfortunate situations, fraud -- both of which cost organizations substantial resources. Modern companies must look for ways to increase access to data and knowledge for all employees. The right BI solution that addresses data integration, security and usability can be the bridge to that knowledge and can result in immediate and significant financial gain for a company that employs it strategically.

About the Author

Mike Psenka is founder, president and CEO of eThority. He has a 16-year history in business intelligence and data reporting.

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