There is no shortage of business intelligence sources. Chances are your company is using a customer relationship management system to track clients, some form of Web analytics software, a time monitoring system for classifying employee project hours, a financial database for your cash flow and a host of other enterprise systems to gather all the necessary information.  

The challenge with the multitude of data sources is that you must access each individually. This makes it difficult to analyze the data. Each day is demanding enough without having to spend time with each data source to get a full picture of what is happening within the organization. And because each source is looked at individually, it is hard to identify trends and issues across the multiple sources early enough to make decisions that impact the daily activities of the company. The value of integrated operational BI is not to simply have information, but to understand when things are going wrong, and to be able to take action.

Dissimilar Data Sources

For example, a client is entered into the CRM system as a lead from the website. The sales team works hard to convert the lead to a sale by offering them custom work. As the engineering team develops the project, their hours are allocated in a time tracking system. Once the project is complete, the client is billed and the transaction is stored in a financial database.
In this example, there are four dissimilar applications used – CRM, Web analytics, time sheets and financial. Because there are no issues with the project, data integration is not a factor because all of the individual pieces operate independently of each other. But what if there is a wrench thrown into the project?

Consider the same example. A client is entered into the CRM system through the website and is converted to a lead requiring custom work. The engineering team encounters some issues with the development, and the project costs start adding up as more time is spent than was initially expected. The deadline is in jeopardy of slipping unless overtime hours are approved, further increasing the cost. However, without billing the customer on time, the financial targets for the month are not going to be met.
Without being able to see all of the key performance indicators in one source, the manager could either be unaware of the issue or make an incorrect decision due to not having all of the facts. The manager could be in the time sheet database and notice that too much time is being allocated to the client project.

However, because he was not aware of the financial plan, he did not realize that the monthly targets would not be met without this project’s revenue. Because he only had part of the necessary information, he refused the overtime request from engineering, which resulted in the project not getting billed in the current month and the revenue targets not being met. Now the manager is responsible for explaining to his boss what happened.
This is a common scenario playing out across companies of all sizes and structures. Corporate goals are set and dependencies are discussed, however if these are not easily communicated and front-and-center, they are all too often forgotten.

Business Intelligence Data Integration

Constantly accessing all of the systems and databases to understand what is happening is not an effective use of time. While it is vital to the performance of the organization, it is time consuming and difficult to identify trends or issues. Being able to view all of the performance metrics in a single, consolidated dashboard saves time by highlighting issues in one central location.
With an integrated data system, a manager can see all of the information necessary to make a decision about a project. He can see the projected revenue coming in and the fact that the project is slipping. He can then make an informed decision as he considers what steps to take next.

Should the sales team approach the client and ask for more money? Should more resources be added to the project to maintain the delivery timeline? Should he accept the delay and change the monthly revenue targets? Or should he choose from any number of other options that are available? By having access to all of the data in one place, the manager can make an informed decision that can be justified to his boss when he gets the call.

Data Sources

The storage methods for enterprise applications and BI are as varied as the types of systems available. For instance, you can have data from the sources mentioned previously all stored in different methods ranging from Excel files and flat files, such as XML and CSV to ODBC databases and OLAP cubes. And these are just typical sources, not an exhaustive list.
There is a difference between dashboards provided by the various systems that a company uses and an integrated dashboard. While the individual dashboards provide the information, they each focus on the information they are designed for. Google Analytics provides dashboards for Web statistics, but does not show leads that are captured in Salesforce.com.  
An integrated KPI dashboard can serve as a mashup of data from many different sources, enabling a holistic approach to BI. The platform should be data source agnostic, allowing it to pull data from any source and present it visually in a way that makes sense for the user. This provides the user access to all of the information necessary to identify trends and issues allowing informed decisions to be made.

However, as with separate data sources, it is also important to monitor the mashup constantly for changes and to ensure clear and simple understanding of the data. This can be facilitated by either creating alerts to let you know when thresholds have been exceeded, or ensuring that context – goals, averages, historical performance – is always provided to give meaning to the data.

The idea of creating a custom dashboard combining all of the data sources might seem daunting, especially after investing the time  to set up all of the individual databases. But that is the value of the dashboard: it ensures that the time and effort spent in setting up the organization’s applications, databases and systems will be worthwhile as the data will be visible at all times so it can be acted upon and not overlooked.

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