Choosing the right BI tools for your business – SMEs
There is an increasingly strong demand for BI tools within the SME market and, perhaps subsequently, an increasing willingness from the vendors to meet the market demand with more flexible, scalable and cost effective solutions.
Technology developments within the market and increased vendor competition has removed many of the obstacles that SMEs used to face such as cost, IT pre-requisites, skill sets etc. and they can now choose from a wider range of tools and vendors offering features such as mobile applications, self-service BI and cloud BI.
With many SME’s looking to update their BI roadmap and make full use of the capabilities now within their reach, the following should be taken into consideration.
Ease of Deployment and Adoption
BI tools that are difficult to install, require extensive or ongoing investment in infrastructure or are complex to use may not be suitable for SMEs with minimal IT skills. Many do not have a dedicated, in-house IT department or the funds to invest in architecture or training.
Their aim is to have non-IT staff accessing and analysing data sources, reporting and visualising the findings in an intuitive graphical format that can then drive valuable business insights quickly and effectively. This in turn reduces or even eliminates the need to hire IT professionals or fund training programs for junior staff.
Information Builders and Tableau are easy to deploy in various environments. SAS VA, Information Builders WebFOCUS, Tableau, and MicroStrategy are easy to implement, and have a short learning curve with potential for fast return on investment.
Creating reports and conducting analysis using these tools is straightforward, and made possible via an intuitive user interface with simple drag and drop features. Free online training and active online communities provide user support throughout the learning and developing process.
Selecting a tool based on the functionality required should always be a priority. An Energy provider looking for a suitable tool to forecast electricity and gas demand will need a tool with predictive analysis functions which allow them to build predictive models. Even though Tableau looks attractive it is unlikely to meet all of their analytical requirements whereas SAS VA, for example, offers both a user friendly GUI as well as deep level analytics capabilities when coupled with SAS Visual Statistics.
Many of the self service BI tools today, including those mentioned above, are code free, and enable users to build dashboards and carry out analysis in a zero coding environment with intuitive and interactive GUI (graphical user interface).
SMEs have become fast paced organisations and often there is increased focus on achieving quick returns on any investments. Having weeks and months to analyse data before coming to a conclusion is rarely realistic and a luxury most SMEs cannot afford. A BI solution that is easy to deploy and manage, and quick to deliver can be a key differentiator between increased profit or loss.
Scalability and Performance
SMEs will benefit from flexible platforms which will allow them to grow and scale as their requirements and demand changes.
Software as a Service (SaaS) BI offers, in theory, a pay as you use option that might be attractive for SMEs. SaaS BI can expedite the process of integration and user adoption and the whole process is generally much faster than traditional BI.
Adding users to a SaaS environment typically means paying for additional seats with each user being provided with access via a web-browser as opposed to on-premise solutions where adding a user often requires installing the software on a local-machine, upgrading the system, and syncing the application with others on the network.
With hosted solutions requiring no investment in hardware or architecture SaaS can present an economic alternative for SMEs requiring cost effective flexibility and scalability, however it should be noted that vendors in this space often look for large contract lock in and the option to pay for usage is not always available.
Cloud BI provides a similar service as SaaS BI and, as the name suggests, provides BI tools that are deployed in the cloud. It provides largely the same benefit as SaaS BI in as much as the organisation doesn’t need to own any IT infrastructure or deal with any in-house management and maintenance but
Many BI vendors, such as SAS, MicroStrategy, Pentaho, and Information Builders offer SaaS options and many of their tools are now available in the cloud.
The need to access data on the move remains a critical factor for many SMEs, the ability to present both data and reports to customers and investors and access to critical information anytime, anywhere, especially when you need to make a decision.
Many vendors provide mobile BI with their Self-service BI package. The aforementioned vendors as well as Pentaho and Microsoft all provide mobile solutions that enable the customer to view the latest updated reports via smartphones and tablets, anytime, and from anywhere.
Cost of Ownership
For many SMEs, cost is the main influencing factor when procuring software and this can limit the options available. However, the best in class BI tools may not always be the best option for the business, often cheaper alternatives can adequately meet requirements and provide decent value for money.
BI software packages vary dramatically in price. The cost model differs between products and vendors and often depends on multiple variables; number of users, volume of data, data sources, additional functions and add ons, level/type of service required and many others.
BI vendors licence and charge for their products in a number of ways. Careful attention should be given to understanding the ongoing cost of ownerships. Products such as Tableau can seem very attractive price wise but costs will rise dramatically as your usage of the product increases. Qlikview’s personal edition and Microsoft’s Power BI are free, but neither support collaboration which makes them only suitable for corporations of a small size.
Consideration could also be given to the growing number of powerful open source solutions which are beginning to gain traction in the large enterprise space and have been adopted by small and medium sized companies.
Not every SME has a tight budget or a lack of IT-skilled workers. If your employees know several programming languages and find it easy to pick up a new scripting language, adopting Pentaho and Qlikview might not be an issue. Nobody could deny that scripting provides greater flexibility than a visual solution ever could.
Having said all of the above we would actually encourage organisations to initially approach their situation with a more strategic and holistic view by assessing the following:
1. What is your long term strategy and roadmap for analytics. What are you looking to achieve and what functionality are you looking for in order to meet your short term and long term goals.
2. What is the position of your company’s resources, including financial, IT infrastructure and personnel resources.
Gaining a holistic view of your strategy and end goal will allow an organisation to then understand the importance of each factor above. These factors, as well as any specific known requirements, should generate the framework of the BI solution required.