Business intelligence used to be the mainstay of the enterprise. But, more and more SMBs are looking down this road. What are the options for companies that want BI on the cheap?
You do not need a degree in economics or business administration to realise that things are tough out there in the market or to furthermore, know that what you do in tough times is focus on cutting your costs and increasing your revenues.
For most SMBs, it has not been that simple.
Because of their size, SMBs generally do not have the tools to drill deeply into the data buried in their transactional systems and find out where costs can be cut and revenues can be increased.
As such, more and more SMBs are looking at business intelligence as a solution they simply, 'must have'.
Tougher for SMBs
"It is critical for organisations of all sizes to get rapid insight into their business information so they can make better decisions in the face of increasingly tough competition and scarce resources," says SMG Server marketing manager at Microsoft, Frikkie Bosch.
And for small and midsize businesses, he says, this challenge is only magnified.
"You must be able to adapt quickly and achieve your business goals, and you have to do it with fewer resources than your larger competitors.
"Microsoft Business Intelligence (BI) offers a full set of servers, tools, and applications that can help small and midsize businesses build a robust BI solution to support employees’ decision-making and performance management needs.
"And most importantly," he claims, "we can deliver these products and solutions at a price that makes BI affordable."
Bosch says that SQL Server and the Windows Server System provides a perfect platform for SMBs to deploy BI solutions on.
"The functionally rich capabilities of SQL Server and the Windows Server System provides SMEs with very agile but low cost solutions," he says.
In case you were wondering, 'low cost' translates into R120 000.
That, Bosch says, will get an SMB an integrated BI solution that is bundled with hardware and the underlying operating system the solution will run on top of.
When Small Business Server 2008 ships in November, it will include a version that comes with SQL server and SharePoint Services - seemingly, this 'Premium' edition will be perfect for SMBs looking to get into BI.
"For SMEs that do not have experience with BI, it is advisable to involve a partner to assist and guide the SME on making the best choices and ensure best practices. Involving partners will also significantly reduce risk," Bosch says.
Bruce Nicholson, technical director at Microsoft solutions provider i5 however says that this approach could be too expensive for some smaller players - especially if one considers that training and change management may attract even more cost to the solution.
Do not rule out the spreadsheet
Nicholson explains that while the spreadsheet has taken something of a hammering as the Neanderthal of the BI world, the unassuming Excel may hold the key to ubiquitous BI for SMBs.
And with the availability of Excel server, the data, which is being presented, can come directly off a centralised database - Excel can therefore no longer be criticised for poor integration of data.
"Excel is today merely serving as the access and analysis tool rather than the data repository," he says.
Excel also serves as an ideal front end, particularly with recent developments made on the application.
"Microsoft has looked at what people use Excel for. There is no question that many use it for data analysis and number crunching; as a result, the 2007 release includes more BI and analysis functionality with improved data presentation ability," Nicholson explains.
Not the panacea, but a good option
"Most, if not all, office workers already have Excel installed on their machines. Many are already quite familiar with its workings. Some have even used the advanced functionality in a BI-type fashion," says Nicholson.
BI is about delivering operational support to a wide cross section of people, not high-level reporting which supports decision-making by three or four executives.
"Instead of spending tons of money on those top execs, spread the investment and allow the benefits of information analysis to accrue to more people," he says.
Spreadsheets are far from the be all and end all of BI, but he says, let us face it - people are set in their ways.
"If the goal of extending BI to the masses is to be realised, it will have to happen with a tool that does not intimidate people. Pros and cons must be weighed, but Excel is a highly viable option," he concludes.