8 ways to… Use business intelligence better

Firms have a vast amount of data available to them from a huge range of sources. Business intelligence tools are designed to help them sift useful information from all this material, but, as with any tool, they should be used intelligently to achieve optimal results

1. Develop an analytical culture
You need to develop a workforce that’s enthusiastic about finding insights from business intelligence (BI), says Eddie Short, partner and head of BI at KPMG Management Consulting.

But a typical problem is that most investment goes into developing the tools and far too little into making the best use of them. Short thinks that many firms have access to so much data that it’s easy to cherry pick material that supports your own theories.

It’s therefore important to obtain validation from key members of your organisation.

“If you don’t like what the numbers are telling you, you need to find new options, responses and scenarios – not to find a way of getting the figures to be what you want,” he says.

2. Deliver information wherever it’s needed
In a typical company far more people work flexibly than was the case two decades ago. This has given rise to the need for BI tools to be available on employees’ mobile devices.

The ability to process big data on these anywhere and at any time is crucial, according to Rachel O’Brien, an information management and analytics specialist at HP Enterprise Services

Tom O’Farrell, a director of business and technology services company Aiimi, believes that it’s important for workers to be able to view real-time data on their mobile devices.

Any failure to deliver information this way could be bad news when it comes to keeping customers and winning new ones.

3. Make more use of unstructured data
In the past, most of the information in BI systems came from structured data such as sales figures.

Today, some of the most vital insights are hidden in a vast mass of unstructured data, including e-mails, Word documents, PDF files and images. In fact, 80 per cent of information in a typical organisation is unstructured, according to Seamus Galvin, head of R&D at Espion, a specialist in information security.

The volume of unstructured data is growing at 50 per cent a year. Galvin suggests that companies could analyse their unstructured data to spot trends indicating fraudulent behaviour, for example, or to gauge attitudes to the organisation among customers and employees.

4. Focus on the future
Too much management information concerns what has happened rather than what’s likely to happen. It has been said that managing with historic data is like driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror.

More firms should be using predictive analytics, argues Steve Farr, product marketing manager at Tibco, a provider of infrastructure software. “It’s not necessary to have a mathematics degree to work this kind of analysis,” he says.

“These tools remove complexity, allowing users to focus on making decisions, asking questions and exploring data.”

A particularly useful feature of predictive systems is their ability to monitor events and take action automatically. For example, a system could forecast events that might lead a client to want to switch to another supplier – and then act to discourage them from doing so.

5. View information pictorially
Visualisation – converting raw data into pictorial form – is a powerful way of understanding complex information, according to Nathan Yau, the author of Data Points: Visualization That Means Something (Wiley, 2013).

Visualisation takes advantage of all kinds of graphs and pictograms. Yau believes that this should enable users to see “trends, patterns and outliers that tell you about yourself and what surrounds you”.

He adds that good visualisation is a “representation of data that helps you to see what you otherwise would have been blind to if you’d looked only at the naked source”.

Yau says that visualisation involves answering four key questions: what data do you have? What do you want to know about it? Which visualisation techniques should you use? And does what you can see make sense?

6. Keep information up to date
In a fast-moving business world, information that was useful a year ago may not now be adequate, warns John Masters, solutions director at Metapraxis, a business analysis company.

“Management information should anticipate key questions about business performance that users of the information need to answer in order to make effective decisions,” he says.

“Designers of management information should ensure that they include the right combination of data dimensions to answer the key questions that managers will be asking as they probe and challenge the information.”

Masters recommends making the information interactive, so that it helps individual managers to search for the specific insights they need.

7. Mine social media for intelligence
Online forums, blogs and news sites are packed with information that firms can use, but they need the right systems to do so. Social media sites are especially useful for monitoring rivals’ activities.

The first step is to analyse a range of relevant sources to gain a full picture of your industry, advises Richard May, a senior executive at Spotter, which specialises in textual analysis.

“Whittle down and categorise the data you do receive to remove the background noise,” he says.

“That should leave you with accurate, useful information that will enable you to outmanoeuvre the competition. A true sign of a firm’s ability to monitor social media is the accuracy of its data.”

8. Ensure that managers use the information
Producing great BI is only the first step. It’s wasted effort if managers aren’t using it. They’re more likely to make use of it if the information is presented in the most user-friendly format possible.

Masters says that people process tabular information sequentially and graphs using their visual ability.

“Graphs are generally the most appropriate device for communicating insights when the message is contained in the shape of its values – such as a trend, a pattern of behaviour or evidence of exceptional performance – or when we need to reveal relationships among whole sets of values,” he explains.

“We should always design the simplest chart possible to make the message clear and obvious.”

Illustration: Borja Bonaque


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