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Straight Talk on Business Intelligence

You run a small or midsize business. Maybe it's not rocket science... then again, maybe it is. There's nothing small (or even midsize) about the complexity of managing your own business - it's big-time. On any given moment of any day, you might be working furiously to track the effectiveness of your sales efforts, monitor your inventory, juggle receivables against payables, and reduce inefficiencies in production.

You've got all the data - somewhere. It's in this sales report, that stock list, those account ledgers, these production updates. In other words, it's siloed here and siloed there. Wouldn't it be great if it could all be pulled together, so you could analyze it holistically and make truly informed, real-time decisions?

Well, here's the good news: You can, thanks to business intelligence. We know what you're thinking: "I can't afford some expensive, complicated technology. Business intelligence? That's for the big guys, companies with armies of IT workers."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Regardless of the size or type of your business, you're already compiling reams of data and you've no doubt acquired the software that is the foundation of business intelligence. If you have Microsoft Office 2010 and Microsoft SQL Server, you're already on your way to a Business Intelligence solution. (What's that you say? Don't want to invest in another database?) Ever hear of Microsoft SQL Server Express? It's... drum roll... FREE!

Let's take a closer look at the process and tools for gleaning insights from your business data.

The first step is to pull together a list of the critical reports you need to run your business effectively. Think about the reports you already run today. Could they be made more intuitive? More timely? More readily available? You'll want to get input from all the key people in your business and from any outside vendors who require reports, such as accountants or e-commerce consultants. (When you are talking to vendors about the reports, make sure you understand how they build the metrics to measure their business. There might be differences.)

Next, you'll need to determine all the discrete pieces of information -- or, as the geeks like to say, the "data points" - you'll require to generate the reports. Once you've identified the data points, you'll need to establish the sources for the data.

Okay, you know what data you require and where it will come from. Now you need to aggregate the information into a database, so it can be sliced, diced and analyzed - in other words, so it can be turned into the reports you identified back in step one.

The next steps: Generate the requested reports and review them with all the stakeholders. This means going over the reports in detail with your managers, your vendors, and the folks "in the trenches" - in short, everyone you're expecting to provide insights and act on business data. It's critical that everyone understands how the numbers were generated. Moreover, missing items or errors in data sources often surface during these reviews, so you'll want to listen carefully to all the feedback and make any necessary changes.

Now you've determined what information you'll need, where the data will come from, and how the reports will be generated. Next, you'll need to setup systems for sharing the reports with the appropriate employees. This might be efficiently done by publishing the report to your company's intranet portal. By sharing the reports online, you'll be able to track the number of users who access the reports and determine which reports - and subsections of reports - are the most popular. You'll also be able to post updates and revisions in one place and be certain that everyone is viewing the latest version.

All that remains is to automate the entire process, so that the reports are generated and shared for anywhere and anytime access. Now your people have the critical information they need to make better, more relevant decisions that fuel productivity, profits, and growth.

Let's do a quick recap. We know what we want, the ability to analyze data and spot-meaningful trends, and to make these trends actionable by sharing them with employees. And we know what we need to get there: data software that will help us collect and analyze those reams of information, and collaboration software that will get the information into the hands of employees who can translate the insights into action.

Let's take a look at the information technology behind a business intelligence solution a little more closely. It begins with a database that stores all the information. This is the foundation of business intelligence: You need a robust database that will collect all the information about your business and enable you to find those nuggets that can be game-changers. The data infrastructure (to use its fancy IT name) needs to have powerful capabilities for creating reports and providing analysis. Microsoft SQL Server 2008 can help provide that. With SQL Server you get an incredibly powerful means of collecting and storing data, and it also allows your "report jockeys" to perform sophisticated searches, queries and analyses.

You might already be using one or more systems or applications to manage day-to-day operations, but getting information out of these systems can be a struggle. When you're suing a SQL Server database, you can use the built-in reporting tools to create standard reports that give you fast, accurate data to help manage the business more efficiently. You can set up access to the database from within SQL Server Reporting Services, and then get started with reports and basic data visualization using familiar Microsoft Office programs, like Microsoft Office Excel. Because everyone in your organization may already have Excel, it brings out the analyst in everybody, by letting them do their own data exploration and strategizing, empowering them to make predictions, to visualize data, and to spot the connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. All while accessing the same source of the data.

And finally, there's one more piece in a comprehensive BI platform - sharing the reports. SQL Server had done the vital work of gathering and analyzing the data, now you need to put that analysis in a form that your employees can easily share and readily understand. You need a way to facilitate collaboration and manage all those great ideas that are bubbling up, a way to generate forms and workflows that are peculiar to your business and to create dashboards and scorecards that are meaningful and intuitive. Your server will handle this part of the BI process and put the insights into the hands of the people who can now do further analysis. It not only gets the information to the "doers," it does so in the Office formats that your employees know so well. No puzzling over arcane reports and fumbling with unfamiliar functions. Microsoft SharePoint makes sharing data a snap *they didn't name it "SharePoint" for nothing), so collaboration across departments and functions is a breeze.

This means that your BI deployment reaches throughout the company, rather than being confined to a small cadre of IT mavens. With Microsoft BI fully integrated into your business, everyone has the ability to act on insights that can help drive down costs, boost productivity, and propel the bottom line.

Ready to get started? Contact us at Future Systems And Software to speak with an IT specialist to learn more about implementing a full-fledged Microsoft BI solution. In these difficult economic times, BI can be a game-changer, so don't delay. Talk to us now.

  Future Systems And Software
 6-295 Queen Street East
 Suite # 404
 Brampton, Ontario  Canada
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