Business Intelligence: 5 Steps to a Successful Project

0ne of the most frequent requests received by our sales and consulting teams from our existing clients and prospects recently is improved reporting and access to their data in a way that will help them manage their business more efficiently and profitably. The thing that everyone is looking for is what is currently referred to as “Business Intelligence”. Simply put, Business Intelligence, or BI, is a set of tools that takes a set of data and transforms it into meaningful information that can be used to manage a business or other entity. The format of the data may consist of lists, charts, graphs, data visualizations, or a combination of all of these presentation methods within a dashboard. It can be as simple as a “Top Ten Customer List” within an Excel spreadsheet or as comprehensive as a hosted portal that aggregates data and provides tools to present the data within interactive dashboards, like Microsoft Power BI.

Everyone wants it, everyone needs it, and with today’s technology most people have the ability to develop a BI solution for their organization. Yet getting from idea to implementation can be very arduous, time-consuming, and ultimately frustrating if the proper approach to developing a project plan has not been well crafted and thought out. Although there are many choices and options available for developing a BI solution, all successful BI projects will result in data being presented (1) accurately, (2) concisely, (3) in a timely fashion, and (4) to the proper individuals.

Below are five major steps that should be carried out in any BI project plan to maximize the opportunities for success. For the purposes of this document, the presentation layout to be provided to the end-user will be referred to as the dashboard.

Step 1: Develop a mockup of the dashboard to be delivered to the end-users.

This is the most important step in developing a BI project plan. While it may seem like a BI dashboard would be the same for any distributor, or manufacturer, or other type of business, every organization and person has unique factors that will drive the vision of the dashboard. For example, when analyzing sales, is it important to analyze sales by customer, by item, or by groups? Should comparisons be provided to the prior month, prior quarter, prior year, annual trends? Should values be expressed in Dollars, quantities, or percentages? Should the data be presented as lists, charts, or graphs? And are line graphs, pie charts, or other data visualization formats preferred?

The point is that unless a sample is provided showing what the expected dashboard should look like, be prepared to be disappointed. There are virtually an unlimited number of ways to present data, and what makes the data meaningful is unique to each organization or even person.

Do not proceed to Step 2 below until this step has been completed.

Step 2: Identify the data source(s) that are required to produce the dashboard.

As stated above, you cannot complete this step until there is a clear vision of what the BI dashboard will provide. If you are lucky, the required data can be gathered from a single data source. This will make the dashboard development step much easier. But if the data must be aggregated from multiple data sources, this may have an impact on the technology solution that is used to build the dashboard. It will also impact the time and resources required to develop the dashboard.

Step 3: Confirm the technology solution(s) that will be used to develop the dashboard.

Sometimes, this is the step where people want to start this project. But if you haven’t completed steps 1 and 2 above first, there is a risk that the technology solution selected will not be able to provide the required BI features and functionality.

There are many options and tools available for developing the dashboard at many price points. It may be determined that standard Microsoft Excel tools such as ODBC connections or Data Feeds will provide the data in a format that can be used to present the data in a dashboard format. Or perhaps a more robust solution that will pre-structure the data in a “cubed” format is required due to the volume of data being presented. Regardless of what BI tool is selected, ensure that resources will be available to update, improve, and add on to the existing dashboards. With BI, data elements and formats change continuously as the business and people’s use of the BI tools evolves.

In addition to confirming data requirements, the delivery method of the dashboard should also be considered when selecting a BI technology solution. Delivery of a dashboard to each person could be completed via e-mail, posting of a report to a web portal, or providing direct access to a tool where each user can manipulate and enhance the data that is provided via the BI technology solution.

Step 4: Develop and test the dashboard.

This is where most people want to start. And this is why many people end up frustrated when taking on a BI project. If you haven’t first provided the vision of the dashboard and already confirmed the required data sources, developing the solution will require many revisions and changes as each person provides their vision only after the initial development has been completed. If the proper planning has been done, developing and testing the dashboards should be even easier than the initial planning steps above.

Once the initial development has been completed, it is important to test the dashboards. This testing includes updating and refreshing data to ensure that the values are calculating correctly. The testing should also include validating the data included on the report by attempting to manually reconciling the data to the original data source or other reports that are currently in-use or available. This validation will provide confidence to the users of the dashboards that the information being provided within the dashboards is accurate and up-to-date.

Step 5: Share and deploy the dashboard.

This step should be the simplest one to complete because all of the decisions and difficult tasks have been completed and tested by this point. This step consists of implementing the delivery method, or mechanism in which the dashboard will be shared with each person. Regardless of which delivery method is chosen, a webinar to walk through the process of launching, refreshing, or saving the dashboard should be provided for each user.

At this point, it might seem that the project is completed. But when used effectively, a BI solution is never “complete”. This is because as the information included on the dashboard is consumed by the users, the users’ data analysis skills and requirements will evolve over time. This will translate into new requests, or other changes to the existing formats. To plan for this inevitable scenario, communicate in advance to the user team how new requests should be submitted. Also, if applicable, provide training on how to make basic changes and improvements to the existing dashboards that have been delivered.

Each organization is unique, and therefore each BI project will be unique. Some BI projects may take days, while other may take months – and some can be done simply with a small investment while other projects will require advanced resources and technology solutions. But if the key steps listed above are followed, the chances of a successful BI project that results in meaningful information being presented to the right people at the right time have been maximized.

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