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How to improve business intelligence on a tight budget

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Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Or do without.” That adage from the Great Depression is making a comeback these days among corporations that are digging deep to maintain profitability using business tools they already have in-house.

Serious threat

One of those companies is Creativity Inc., which two years ago was facing a serious threat to its business model. The company, which designs crafting products and markets and distributes its wares to specialty retailers, was being undercut by overseas manufacturers as retailers began to buy direct. The trend preceded the current economic downturn, but it hit with renewed vigor when the recession deepened.

Changing the company’s product strategy

“We’ve been adjusting to a changing landscape,” says Jim Mulholland, vice president of IT, and that includes fundamentally changing the Van Nuys, Calif., company’s product strategy.

Find more profitable products with BI

To find more profitable, less commodity-driven products, and to cut operating costs, Creativity turned to its existing stable of Cognos business intelligence software. “We made no new purchases at all. We are taking advantage of different parts of the Cognos system, like Event Studio,” a Web-based events-management module, Mulholland says.

Find operational savings

The economy has companies scrambling to use BI to find operational savings and to refocus their product lines and strategies, says Nick Millman, senior director for information management services at Accenture Ltd.

Build new data warehouses

But IT organizations aren’t rushing to buy new business intelligence software or build new data warehouses. Instead, they’re digging deeper and doing more with existing tools from BI vendors such as IBM’s Cognos unit, SAS Institute Inc., SAP AG’s Business Objects unit and Microsoft Corp. “Organizations are trying to utilize their existing business intelligence tools without going out and buying more hardware and software,” Millman says.

Millman and others suggest the following strategies to squeeze more out of your existing tools while giving your business an extra boost.

1. Consolidate Your Tools

“Usually people have more tools than they need, and that can be distracting,” says Anthony Abbattista, vice president of technology solutions at Allstate Insurance Co. in Northbrook, Ill., and a former business intelligence consultant. Those organizations end up with “different pockets of people doing similar analysis with different tools,” he says.

Be aggresive about it

His recommendation: Consolidate, and be aggressive about it. “Get to the minimum number of tools you need to get the job done.” Over the past few years, Abbattista has overseen the consolidation of 13 data warehouses down to just two and has pushed Allstate from a centralized business intelligence function to a self-service model based on the deployment of customizable dashboards.

The first step toward an intelligent organization

Settling on a standardized set of tools was the first step toward empowering business managers and analysts. Abbattista says the company “killed off” two-thirds of the tools it was using, including redundant products and “falling stars” — yesterday’s hot tools that are no longer considered leading-edge.

Saving on licensing costs

Those efforts paid off before a single new report was created. The business saved on software support and licensing costs, and the simplified tools portfolio made user training easier.

Standardising on a single set of tools also made it easier for different groups to share and reuse models. Before, for example, the sales and finance groups had separate profitability models that they had created using different tools. “If they got different results, you’d spend time trying to rationalize why that was,” Abbattista says. Now different units can feel confident that they’re comparing apples to apples.

Next recommendations

  • Let Business Take the Driver’s Seat
  • Use New Data Models for New Markets
  • Centralize Business Intelligence
  • Put More Data in Your Warehouse
  • Make Better Use of Data You Already Have
  • Help Users Understand the Data, Not Just the Tools

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