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How to choose the best BI tool for your company

Usually, the process of choosing the best BI tool goes like this: a company invites representatives of several BI vendors to present their product. Sales team present their flashy powerpoint screens; at the end company juri, consisting of top and middle management, votes for the most beautiful or the cheapest BI solution. While such beauty contests are fun, the worrying part is why the particular BI tool has been chosen.

In most cases BI sales representatives talk about their software functions, – they will mention the best capabilities and strong points of the software. You will see some examples and the best of use cases during the presentation. Probably, even a demo application too. In addition, company staff will ask some questions if this or that thing is possible. The answer is almost always “yes”. But do the functions and capabilities of the software are the right focus? In my opinion, no.

You should not consider what software to choose because there is no such thing as the best BI tool. It is just a tool! And like any other instrument it serves its purpose – to crunch up the data and convert it into meaningful information.

To illustrate the above thoughts, let’s take another example of a tool – a fork. Its purpose is to help eat the food conveniently. But if you were the restaurant chief, would you dare to invite your whole team, line up various forks on the table and ask which fork is better to eat with? It would be a total waste of time! Fork is fairly important: it has to be clean and in good quality. However, the food is the most significant for the restaurant’s success. The same analogy can be applied to the company choosing the BI tool. What for a restaurant is the fork, for the company is BI tool. Then data handling is food. The software is not the most important thing. The most important is the knowledge of how to handle the data. It includes master data management (organizing data in uniform, up-to date way with ability to grab it from one source, thus avoiding “garbage-in-garbage-out” situations), best data governance practices (rules who handles data and how the data is handled throughout business processes) and even conformity with business strategy.

BI tool has to be consistent, reliable, have data connectors and the ability to present data to both company and outside users in an automatic way. Preferred options are ease-of use, advanced analytics (forecasting, automated insights) and augmented intelligence (machine assisted data preparation, suggested decisions). The majority of the top BI software can do the above. But none can help you with the best practices of handling the data. None will advise you what needs to be done in order to succeed with BI tool implementation project. BI implementation is not like pushing the buttons “next, next, finish”. BI implementation is the art of painting the business picture into the graphs and formulas.

Instead of focusing on the best tool, company has to consider three things first:

  1. Competency and experience of BI providers that will be implementing the whole BI project. I have seen the best software with the best functionality in the market and still not working in the company. And I have seen simple software working and giving the benefit to the company because the implementation was done right: it included perfect data management and data governance techniques. BI platform was aligned with the company processes and the information came just when and where it was needed. So, look for consultants who can give references related to their previous projects. If you hear good words from others about consultants’ professionalism, problem solving skills, you will know that you are dealing with an experienced implementor. Choosing an experienced BI provider will dramatically increase chances of success.
  2. Return on investment. Before looking at any software, a company should weigh all pros and cons in the long-run. Firstly, find out what benefits you want to get from a new BI tool. Management should answer the questions like how much one would benefit from increased speed of business decisions, how much time will be saved in generating reports, making adjustments or correcting errors, how it will impact company product or service reliability to the client, even how it could positively impact mood for the employees. Here are few good examples of assessing the benefits:
  • Company is growing fast. It will need automated reports or accurate predictions at some point in the future. The BI tool can help to support the growth.
  • Company feels their current reports are out of date. Competitors are often making faster decisions. The BI tool can reduce time spent for reporting and help in making accurate decisions.
  • Company sees low hanging fruits. Management wants to visualize transport routes on the map. Also they would like to visualize inventory levels across the shops. And finally forecast optimal inventory quantities. This kind of optimization alone will offset any BI implementation costs.
  • Company has an irritating reappearing problem, which already became a legend in the organization – the allocation of costs to the service and products takes 5 days and 3 analyst work per month. Management wants to improve the process.

Once benefits are evaluated a company should understand its gains by now in the long-run. Time to make evaluations of costs. The budget must include software, licenses, servers prices. Not to mention possible additional staff related to maintaining the BI tool or external consultants. There will also be a training organized for the employees. Once purchase is made, BI tool will probably stay at least for 5 years within the organization. During these years the company will want to properly maintain and develop the BI tool further. It is a continuous process. The maintenance and developing part will be the most expensive. But again, the more BI tool is tailored, the greater competitive advantage the company can gain. This is why it is so important, that BI tool would support the strategy and would not be implemented like some side project on its own.

One more good tip is to look for such software which has more programmers in the market. Do not worry if that BI tool is more expensive. You will save on the maintenance costs, because of bigger competition among programmers and consultants. And it does not matter if they are external or in-house. Look at the market in general. Just make sure you will not be dependent on one BI maintenance needle.

3. The roadmap, the ultimate goal, the chosen path or whatever you want to call it. This is a long-term commitment. BI tool must be a driver for strategy. Think about where the BI tool will be in 5 years. What purpose will it serve? This might be a driver for digitalization strategy. Or maybe the forecasting of prices is crucial for your business? Then you can enable the BI tool to use different advanced analytics techniques. Maybe you will need insights from your big data? Or might it be the company’s growth strategy, but it anticipates a mess of information will limit the speed of growth? Maybe one of the tasks is to improve communication both inside and outside the company, so you want to simplify keeping analytics in one place? Or empower self-service and collaboration analytics? Maybe your strategy is to be as lean as possible, but your current tools are too costly to operate and you want to get rid of them? Whatever the strategy is, visualize in your mind where exactly is the place for the new BI tool in the organization. Remember, that the first dashboard is just the first brick in the wall for your Business Intelligence house! Think of what house you are building. What for in the long-term?

In conclusion, when choosing the best BI tool, do not worry about BI software functions. If there is a lack of important function in one BI tool, be sure that they will implement it in coming releases. Instead, focus on software implementers’ competence. And the most important – think of future BI tool as a part of company strategy. After all, the leadership flag is always in the company’s hands.

Prepared by Giedrius Rumsys, senior consultant, Infotrust

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