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BI for the Front Lines

  • October 01 2009, 12:40pm EDT

In today’s economy, it’s not an overstatement to say that many companies are fighting for survival. Those that aren’t worried about going out of business are fighting to maintain previous levels of revenue and profitability. It’s fitting, that during this challenging time, employees on the front lines should be outfitted with the business intelligence tools they need to pick — and win — the battles that are most likely to quickly increase a company’s chances for success. 
But who are these front line employees? They’re the warriors whose decisions and actions can generate revenue or cut costs on a daily basis. They are toiling in the trenches in sales, customer service, operations, and any other area in which employees directly interact with customers or deliver products or services. Because there are so many of them in such a variety of roles, it’s almost easier to define who they are not. They are not midlevel managers, directors, partners or executives. And they are not the people who determine company strategy or manage the work of others. But they are the people in a position to use detailed, tactical information to make better daily decisions and quickly improve company profitability. 

Breaking Down the Barriers that Limit BI to the Executive Suite

For a long list of reasons, relatively few individuals — mostly partners and executives — who create company strategy have often been the sole users of BI. At the top of the list is the fact that deployment of traditional BI solutions requires significant amounts of time, money and resources.  And once deployed, maintenance and update costs are considerable.  Lower on the list but still important are low adoption rates caused by traditional solutions that are difficult to use and update. 
Although executives have often been the exclusive users of BI, an admirable and widespread belief exists that companies should get more information into the hands of everyone across the organization.  This belief was so popular that someone even coined a term — “BI for the masses” — to describe it.  However, the concept unfortunately preceded the ability to achieve it, and BI for the masses became tinged with the disappointment of an idea trumpeted before its time.
Fortunately, in recent years, the barriers preventing the spread of BI outside of the executive suite are breaking.  Recently developed software as a service BI solutions are lower cost, faster to deploy and require fewer resources. Because they can be deployed quickly and with limited resources, SaaS solutions are more flexible than traditional solutions, adapting readily to changing business needs. 
Not surprisingly, the considerable difference in cost between SaaS and traditional solutions is beginning to strongly influence BI buying decisions.  Companies purchasing traditional BI software solutions pay large upfront licensing fees, as well as yearly maintenance costs. Companies that select SaaS BI pay a monthly or annual subscription fee that includes the cost of the software, maintenance, and support.  Instead of a large upfront cost, the cost is spread out over the period of use.  This dramatically lowers the barriers to initial purchase and makes ongoing costs clear and manageable.
Initial purchase costs are not the only way to save with SaaS solutions, which are frequently easier to use and update.  At one company, an employee was spending 30 hours a week creating sales reports using a traditional BI solution.  Now, with a SaaS BI solution, that time has been cut to two hours, for a 28-hour savings.  It’s staggering to think how much more that employee will accomplish in a year with the equivalent of three days per week of extra work time.  

BI for the Masses — An Idea to Move Beyond?

Given that SaaS solutions are solving the problems hampering widespread deployment of BI solutions, can BI for the masses be far behind? I believe so. According to a recently published survey by the Business Application Research Center, only 8 percent of workers at organizations that have deployed BI tools make use of them. Given today’s economy and the current woefully limited deployment of BI, attempting a sudden, company-wide deployment of BI would be a big mistake, as well as virtually impossible. 
Recall that BI for the masses is a term created to describe deployment of BI tools to every decision-maker across an organization. Because of their low cost and monthly subscription model, SaaS BI solutions are often categorized as operating expenses that are more likely to gain budget approval. Despite this, it is very unlikely large organizations will approve the expense of company-wide deployments in today’s business climate.
And although it may seem like the basis for every business decision made in recent months, the economy is not the only reason to delay company-wide BI deployment. As with any new technology, a gradual, phased deployment leaves room to make cultural shifts, if needed, and react to lessons learned early in the deployment process. And because SaaS applications are easier to deploy, they will readily scale when companies are prepared to extend BI to new users. 

Increasing Business Success with BI for the Front lines

So what is the answer? If it’s unwise to limit BI to the executive suite, but also unwise — or even impossible — to deploy BI company-wide, how should businesses proceed?  Companies should focus on expanding BI capability in a strategic manner to the front lines; sales, marketing, support and operational organizations have direct impact on revenues, costs and customer satisfaction but are often not included in traditional BI deployments.  By empowering the front lines with updated, actionable information, they can more efficiently and effectively do their jobs, which ultimately drives greater company profits.  

Building a Company Culture for Front-Line BI

In addition to providing new benefits, the deployment of BI to the front lines requires a new approach — one which allows workers to make better, faster, fact-based decisions while lessening their reliance on guidance from management. Because BI for the front lines is about providing information to employees who interact with customers or deliver products or services, it would not be unheard of for front line employees to gain access to business intelligence before their managers.  Businesses with a top-down, “command and control” culture may struggle to accept the idea that employees empowered by facts and guided by the right priorities and incentives can accomplish far more than the command and control model alone.  As with any significant cultural change, this new philosophy must be clearly embraced and communicated by all layers of management, beginning (ironically) at the top.
The success of BI for the front lines also relies heavily on providing the right information to the right people. For obvious reasons, the usual high-level information regarding company performance or market trends will be more useful to executives setting corporate strategy than to employees in the trenches. For these employees, detailed, tactical information is needed, requiring that companies thoughtfully consider whether they’re willing to expand access to this data. 

From Survival to Success

Although it’s understandable that most investments in new technology are met with skepticism in today’s business climate, SaaS BI solutions can propel companies beyond a focus on survival to a focus on success. The dream of BI for the masses isn’t dead, but should be delayed in favor of BI for the front lines. With this approach, companies can equip employees with the information they need to fight the good fight — and win.

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