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As organizations seek to harness the power of their data to accommodate customer needs, reshape go-to-market strategies and improve operations, a profound transformation in how IT functions is taking place. While traditionally technology decisions were made at the highest levels, with executives calling the shots and IT implementing their vision, the digital transformation is bringing frontline users to the table as well.

Frontline users, after all, are the ones who know what the company needs most from its data, be it measuring customer sentiment, accelerating product releases, improving process efficiencies or another business objective.

IT now must accommodate rather than dictate. The inside-out, top-down approach of old is out, and a new horizontal structure is taking over as data becomes democratized. Now, IT takes cues about applying data insights to business goals from customers, prospects, partners, suppliers, colleagues, etc.

IT’s new responsibilities include surveying and responding to constituent needs, and learning to balance speed, agility and quality to accommodate those needs. The whole organization – not just executives and IT – now participates in technology decisions.

In its “Tech Trends 2016” report, Deloitte Consulting puts the situation this way: “In a business climate driven by powerful digital forces, disruption, and rapid-fire innovation, every company is now a technology company. Whereas technology was traditionally confined largely to operations and execution, its digital expression now informs all aspects of business, from ideation to delivery. We witness daily how it drives product design, upends venerable business models, and rewires competition.”

Business intelligence (BI) plays a fundamental role in this shifting paradigm, as IT teams strive to share multidimensional analytics with frontline managers in as close to real time as possible. Data analysis is complex and challenging, and most enterprises lack the required expertise, but they can turn to managed service providers (MSP) to acquire – or borrow – that expertise.

Here are three essential guidelines for governing this type of relationship for greatest advantage:

Keep It Simple

MSPs can help clients identify, locate and decide how to apply data insights to business objectives. And in this quest, simplicity should be your compass. Tools must be intuitive and accessible to rank-and-file employees, not just what you might call the privileged few – data analysts and higher-ups.

Many traditional BI tools were complex and expensive, benefitting only deep-pocket businesses that could afford them. But that’s changing, and the results are profound. Research house Aberdeen Group says companies that apply easy-to-use analytics as leverage are starting to reap the benefits of organic revenue and operating profit growth and cost reductions.

“In an oversimplified world, the general progression of quality business analytics goes something like this: Expose more data, improve its quality, share cross-functionally, apply the right models, ask better questions, get quicker answers, identify more opportunities for cost reduction or business growth, and exploit said opportunities,” Aberdeen explains in its report Easy Breezy BI: Simplicity Drives Success.

Ease of use, says the research firm, improves relevance and trust in the data, which in turn leads business managers to share information across business functions, promoting collaboration. According to Aberdeen, 97 percent of companies with easy-to-use tools trust their underlying data and 83 percent use it for collaboration.

“Companies enjoying easy BI aren’t just living in the past or the present when it comes to generating insight. These organizations are more likely to utilize forward-looking business models and predictive analytics technology to become more prescriptive and proactive,” the report says.

Make It Visual

A big contributor to BI’s simplicity and accessibility in recent years is the emergence of solutions that allow users to visualize data, moving data from the abstract to the tangible realm. Rather than get mired in lengthy spreadsheets or stats reports with endless columns, users instead can see data represented in heat maps, plots, infographics, and pie and bar charts – and much more.

The possibilities for graphical data representations are virtually endless, limited only by the imagination of tool creators and users. To share data in visually compelling ways, users can work with intuitive, easy-to-manipulate dashboards and graphical tools to create an assortment of graphics and images – anything from bubbles, blots and dots on a screen to dazzling imagines resembling celestial maps or colorful fireworks displays.

Your MSP should be involved to provide context and perspective on these visualizations. Why? Because abstractions can be hard to grasp.

As the Interaction Design Foundation explains it: “Whether it concerns sales, incidences of disease, athletic performance, or anything else, even though it doesn't pertain to the physical world, we can still display it visually, but to do this we must find a way to give form to that which has none.” In other words, a picture is worth millions of data bytes, and your MSP knows precisely how those million bytes arrived on the canvas.

Make It Now

Simplicity and visual representations are fundamental to making BI accessible, but how can organizations satisfy the fierce urgency of now? Despite technical advances, many organizations still don’t know all the data they have or how to organize and put it to use. That’s where your relationship with an MSP can make the greatest difference.

A provider with deep experience in BI and analytics can guide the organization through the process of data mining, analysis and execution. Through staff augmentation, or in collaboration as a partnership, providers help identify the pain points and devise a plan to address them.

If production is too slow, sales reps can’t access sales performance reports, customers complain about delivery delays – whatever the issues may be – a methodical approach to data collection and analysis spearheaded by an experienced MSP can help organizations smooth the path and accelerate the journey to ad hoc reporting and predictive analysis.

With the right solutions in place and expert help from a provider, a sales organization learns to better forecast demand, a commodities business to predict crop levels more precisely, and a healthcare provider to refine the delivery of care in a way that avoids repeat patient visits.

Achieving the desired BI results is challenging for companies lacking data analysis expertise, even as tools have become simpler and more visual. Without help, the time necessary to develop the needed skills could be indefinite, giving up ground to competitors.

(About the author: Tom Flynn is President of NxtTeam, an IT training and consulting firm that specializes in bringing the competitive advantages of Business Intelligence to small and mid-size businesses).

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