Business intelligence makes the right information available in the right format to the right person at the right time. Given that virtually all mid-market companies can benefit from business intelligence tools, the real question is how much of this technology constitutes a good investment of time and energy? 

Most of the industrial-strength tools cater more to larger enterprises whose business structures are highly complex and whose budgets can accommodate the lofty implementation expenditures.
And many of these vendors would like you to think that their expensive, high-end solutions are necessary for the mid-market as well, says Jeremy Waterman, MD of Softline Accpac.
He sees it differently, however. “Based on the size of the company and budgetary constraints, the goal is to determine what business intelligence tools is really needed to drill down and extract the key performance data that will make the company more efficient and profitable.”
He recommends that companies leverage existing technology and find cost-effective, easy-to use business intelligence solutions that integrate with their personal productivity tools – such as MS Office.
“That should be quite sufficient to get them the intelligence they need to significantly boost the bottom line,” he comments.
Gartner says that, through to 2009, companies will increase spending 7% per year on business intelligence technology. By 2012, BI will be integral to 85% of business applications.
“This is significant growth,” says Waterman. “Today, CIOs rank business intelligence as their number one priority, when three years ago, it wasn’t even in the top 10. It’s made formidable progress.
However, he cautions that vendors still need to look at where that growth is coming from and what business intelligence solutions of the future will look like.

Make it easy to deploy
Gartner believes vendors must ensure that business intelligence tools are easy to deploy, because many new users won’t have technical backgrounds and some will use business intelligence without even knowing it.
Supporting this view, Waterman demystifies several business intelligence myths prevalent in the mid-market:

Myth 1 – You really need a “cube-based” OLAP BI solution
Many vendors want you to believe that your mid-market company needs a full-fledged cube-based OLAP (online analytical processing) business intelligence solution that delivers realtime, up-to-the-nanosecond data in order to make the best possible business decisions.
We know that a cube-based OLAP tool does enable end users to slice and dice their data, perform multi-dimensional analysis, present information in graphs and charts, and more.
However, there is a high cost associated with maintaining these cube-based systems and you need very high-level programming skills.
On the other side of the equation are reporting tools which fall into the category of transaction system reporting. If you want to know your current inventory levels or the balance of a receivable account or even a comparison of these indicators over a specific period, these tools are great.
But if you’re looking for actionable intelligence that will add considerable value to the decision-making process, you need more than simple reporting tools.
The best approach for the mid-market lies somewhere between these two approaches. The amount of data delivered should be more than a cube-based OLAP tool but less than a simple reporting tool.
The right tool must be able to deliver multi-dimensional analysis, graphing, charting, and more, for a fraction of the cost of an expensive OLAP solution. Moreover, the tool should be modifiable by a user without requiring extensive programming skills.

Myth 2 – You really need expensive, industrial-strength analytics to make informed business decisions

Make no mistake – having access to an analytics tool can be a very powerful component of your business intelligence plan. Analytics enable end users to transform data into information, and then get that data into the right hands, at the right time, and in the correct format to facilitate timely decision-making.
This, in turn, can help companies increase customer satisfaction, decrease costs, and increase revenues.
However, there is this misconception that mid-market companies actually must invest a small fortune in industrial-strength analytics.
In reality, these companies are more interested in the macro view of their business (which BI can deliver), rather than getting too close to the actual transactions where you lose the departmental or company-wide perspective (needed for smarter decision-making).
For these companies, it’s usually quite sufficient to perform data analysis covering predetermined periods of time, say, hours, days, weeks, months, quarters, or years. Typically, you are examining trends or comparisons of results between periods, meaning that you really don’t need to pay for overly expensive applications that deliver high-powered analytics.
We contend that the level of investment required for an expensive analytics solution is more the province of the larger company than the mid-market.

Myth 3 – I have to toss out all my spreadsheets
With all the high-priced applications now available in the burgeoning business intelligence market, it’s easy to see why many vendors would scoff at the idea that your basic Microsoft Office Suite is quite adequate as a key component of your solution.
Almost everyone in the corporate world is familiar with Excel, its minimal learning curve, and the fact that the application leverages a company’s existing software solutions. Excel is often used to track expenses, create budgets and forecasts, and create reports from that data. Plus, Excel tools offer many useful features such as graphing, charting, and pivoting, which assist decision-making.
Since many of today’s more affordable business intelligence solutions integrate seamlessly with Excel, there is absolutely no reason to abandon this trusty tool that you have relied on for so long. As long as you can access the right data that can help you measure your company’s operational performance, the spreadsheet is still the way to go.
Of course, if you are accessing data from disparate databases whose information is out of sync, then it won’t matter what business intelligence solution you use, you’re not going to get accurate results.

Myth 4 – You really need to invest in a solution that offers airtight compliance
No business intelligence solution will ensure compliance and if your company is not publicly traded, you are probably not even going to have to worry about it.
However, due to all the press that has been generated around compliance issues and the fact that banks are more concerned with internal controls, there is a chance that you could still be impacted.
If you are concerned with compliance or want to tighten your internal controls as a result of renewed focus on this area, there are software tools that you can utilise in concert with proper management of your internal processes, for reporting, auditing, and disclosure.
In general, well-thought-out applications can help you in your compliance efforts by making information more accessible and more transparent, and by highlighting anomalies.
A combination of accounting and BI-related reporting tools can serve as a vital part of your overall internal control compliance strategy. As you determine how to respond to the new challenges imposed.

Waterman recommends that companies contemplate a cost-effective business intelligence that delivers most of the functions listed below at a price point that fits the company’s budget:
Alerts – Alerts provide crucial monitoring, proactive notification, and automation capabilities that help a company adapt to changing conditions and avoid alarming scenarios pertaining to payables, receivables, budgets, sales, and inventory.
Inquiry – Having an easy-to-use inquiry tool lets users drill down into a specific area and quickly extract data that is essential to the business.
Multi-dimensional analysis tool – Companies want the ability to bring in data from multiple locations and still be able to see a unified macro view of the entire enterprise. Analysis software should help to achieve this goal, providing a quick snapshot of the business and letting users drill down into sales and purchasing trends, as well as perform budget analysis.
Dashboards – An effective dashboard should provide a graphical snapshot of the business’s health that is easy to understand.
Quick KPIs (key performance indicators)KPIs let users see how the business is measuring up at any moment in time, and can compare financial models and actual performance versus budget and forecast numbers.
Graphical presentation of data – A business intelligence solution should incorporates customisable graphical views of data in grid, pivot table, and interactive chart formats as standard.
Flexible reporting capabilities – The ability to create and generate reports (including exception reports) that accurately reflect the company’s key performance data is crucial, as is the ability to customise these reports and display them graphically.
Remote access – It is essential that executives have remote access to a wide range of vital business data via the Internet.
Report automation – To be competitive, companies must be proactive in automating their entire reporting process.