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Is your business intelligent enough to handle Big Data?

Well, before anything else, what is business intelligence and what is Big Data?

For most businesses, Big Data first of all is the amount of data that is sitting on some data storage device within and/or outside of the company. It can be structured or unstructured data located in one and the same storage device, or it can be structured or unstructured data stored on smaller devices spread all over the company's network across its physical and geographical locations.

Big Data is also data that is not directly linked to or owned by your company, such as data exchanged and collected through social networking using Internet and/or mobile-phone applications. The basic characteristic of Big Data is that it is an ever-growing and changing accumulation of raw data, neither sorted nor consolidated by any means.

Business intelligence is the means - the software or tools - that will get a hold of, bring together, then sort, filter and consolidate your Big Data in order to transform this accumulated unreadable mass, or should I say mess, of data into a useful and clearly presented set of information in the form of dashboards and reports or relevant ad hoc analyses.

This is not necessarily as easily done as it is said because the data can come from multiple sources such as enterprise-resource-planning systems or other software that support the business operation.

So, what do you need to do to make use of your Big Data, and what should you not do in order to set-up business intelligence successfully?

First of all, you need to know what you want to know. What information do you need in order to monitor your business and make the right decisions?

Here we need to emphasise the importance of leading indicators versus lagging indicators. Lagging indicators tell you what happened yesterday, last week, last month and last year. While it is always good to know how your company performed in the past, lagging indicators are a set of historical data and don't help you much when making decisions for the future.

Therefore make sure your business-intelligence solution contains as many leading indicators as possible. Those are the ones allowing you to foresee problems and act on them before it is too late.

For example, in a manufacturing company, output is a lagging indicator that tells us how many units were produced, while order forecast is a leading indicator that helps management to foresee eventual production capacity constraints and address those before ending up with delivery delays.

Second, you need to be aware that one dashboard does not fit all users. A CEO will not require the same information as the CFO, and the chief of marketing will ask for a different set of information enabling him to take the right actions, while an HR manager again looks at different information.

This also explains why setting up a decent business-intelligence solution cannot simply be delegated to the IT department. The different user groups need to very clearly define their requirements before IT can identify the solution software that fits the company and then implement it.

Studies show that defining the requirements can take up to 80 per cent of a business-intelligence project's time and cost.

Third, don't fall into the fancy-graphic sophistication trap. A dashboard full of needles, gauges and meters in all colours of the spectrum may at first look appealing, but it is not always what serves you best.

A simple flat table with the numbers that really matter is likely to tell a CEO more, and more quickly than the most sophisticated graphics. Those needles, meters and gauges are far more adequate for daily operational dashboards used by different departments, such as production, call centre and service delivery.

Last but not least, you should be able to access your business-intelligence software from anywhere. That's basically the big advantage compared to the conventional "war-rooms", where you had screens built into the walls in a single room. Today's technology allows you to have it all on one screen, no matter whether it is a PC, notebook, tablet or mobile phone.

Niklaus Stucki is a business consultant at Freewill Solutions.


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