Business Intelligence For Small Business

By Mark Swartz
Monster contributing writer 

Your company is a data producing fountain. Sales figures, customer information, departmental expenditures…every passing moment generates more facts and numbers. You’re awash in details about what’s happening within your organization.
Business Intelligence (BI) is the process of harnessing this pool of internal data. Its purpose is to help your people improve their decision making abilities. Combined with the external Market Intelligence you’re gathering, they’ll have a foundation to make evidence-based choices on how to allocate resources.
There are many BI tools available that can assist in doing this. Today there are affordable software solutions that make data gathering, analyzing and reporting accessible to smaller businesses. These analytics can provide insights into trends and issues that otherwise might be overlooked.
Definition of Business Intelligence
According to the Advanced Performance Institute (API), Business Intelligence is an assortment of approaches for gathering, storing, analyzing and providing access to internal data that helps users gain insights and make better fact-based business decisions.
Companies are using BI tools to do things like calculate the profitability of many individual customers daily, track the navigation path of every visitor to a Web site, provide service reps a 360-degree view of customer activity in real time, and calculate total cost-per-hire.
Where BI Is Typically Used
API advises that Business Intelligence analysis is applicable to the following areas, among many others:
  • Analysing existing customer behaviours, buying patterns and sales trends
  • Measuring, tracking and predicting sales and financial performance
  • Budgeting, financial planning and forecasting
  • Gauging the costs and effectiveness of recruiting and hiring processes
  • Tracking the performance of marketing campaigns
  • Optimising processes and operational performance
  • Improving delivery and supply chain effectiveness
  • Web, social media and e-commerce analytics
  • Customer relationship management
  • Risk analysis
Start By Determining Your Needs
Before looking into a Business Intelligence system, it’s essential to outline your information needs. This can be as simple as writing down the kinds of business questions each department needs answers to most.
Next comes considering who will use the analyzed information. The human touch in analytics is crucial. Will it be senior managers who mainly require top level details every few days, or junior staff who must track real-time data on the fly?
Deciding on how the data will be input, by whom, and how often, comes next. Your IT systems should be integrated so that information can be collected into a central database, to be crunched when necessary.
Investigate Business Intelligence Software
At the heart of any good BI process is software that integrates and analyzes the data fed into it. There are numerous Business Intelligence software programs available to small business.
Newer technologies are arriving frequently: open source, cloud, Web 2.0 and mobile interfaces. Dedicated BI programs join together various specialty software you’re currently using. For instance you may already have a salesforce management database, an applicant tracking system for hiring, spreadsheets for budgeting, and social media statistics.
Basic BI Software
For basic Business Intelligence input, either spreadsheets or relational databases work fine. There are free versions available. Reports can be generated with charts and graphs. However for more robust, feature rich programs, fees apply.
Spreadsheet software is great for inputting numbers. Programs like Microsoft’s Excel are easy to use and learn, yet can readily accommodate expert users as well. There are similar, less feature-intense programs available for free, like those found in Google Documents and OpenOffice.
Relational database enable you to link data by common elements (such as employee ID, stock number, etc.). This reduces duplicate data, and lets you analyze information quickly. Microsoft’s Access is a leading database program. Free equivalents include Kexi and OpenOffice Base.
Dedicated BI Software For Small Business
Software made exclusively for Business Intelligence combines spreadsheet and relational database features. It will be of value if you have so much accurate data internally that it can’t be handled with less complex tools.
Power BI for Office 365 from Microsoft is one cloud-based solution. It offers self-service, dashboards and reports, analysis and predictive analytics. You can also input unstructured data from Hadoop (an open-source software framework for storage and large-scale processing of data-sets). It’s all part of today’s big data revolution.
Other BI software is available from GoodData, Tableau, IBM Cognos Express, Birst, Entrinsik, and many more. They will keep you afloat as that fountain of internal data keeps spewing faster and higher.