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Q&A: How to make business intelligence work for you



Business intelligence is one way a company can stay ahead of its competition and save money. We're featuring our first Q & A this week with a BI executive talking about what it takes to make this strategy work.

John Thompson is the CEO of North American Operations for Kognitio. He is a global sales and marketing executive with 25 years of experience; his technology expertise includes data warehousing and business intelligence systems, grid computing, knowledge discovery, analytical applications, data mining and exploration, high performance computing and database systems.

Judi Hasson: What's business intelligence and why does a company need it?

John Thompson: The term "business intelligence" was popularized about 15 years ago, when a Gartner analyst wrote, "The key to thriving in a competitive marketplace is staying ahead of the competition. Making sound business decisions based on accurate and current information takes more than intuition. Data analysis, reporting, and query tools can help business users wade through a sea of data to synthesize valuable information from it--today these tools collectively fall into a category called 'Business Intelligence.'"

JH: What's the best way to introduce BI to a company and make it part of their operation?

JT: There are two schools of thought on that: Enterprise-wide deployment of BI works for some firms and can be positioned as a business-based strategic initiative designed to move the firm ahead in the market. An alternative is to initially implement it on a departmental basis, enabling the company to move more quickly and rapidly realize the gains that can be realized from those who need it the most, then roll it out throughout the organization.

JH: What happens if there is more than one database, from a merged company for example, or from a company that upgraded its database but still has the old data available?

JT: Data from disparate databases traditionally went through a time-consuming ETL (extract, transform and load) process that helped push back getting answers to days, weeks or even longer. Some of today's databases are powerful enough that the data can be loaded and analysis begun, even in advance of

transforming the data. In many cases, this reduces "time to answer" to seconds or minutes.

JH: What's the cost of BI systems and how quickly does a company earn back its investments?

JT: BI systems used to represent major capital and operating expenditures for companies, due to the amount of hardware needed to examine vast amounts of data. But those costs have fallen dramatically as the need for proprietary hardware has lessened, and as the software has become more powerful. Moreover, many firms are taking advantage of Data Warehousing as a Service (DaaS), outsourcing it much as they would data storage or firewall protection. ROI is increasingly being calculated in terms of months, not years, especially for those firms who outsource the capacity to a trusted provider.

JH: Is BI more useful for a new company or for a seasoned one?

JT: Both really. Information is key to any company's ability to gain and maintain an advantage in the marketplace. Increasingly, companies are retaining virtually any bit of information they can, so even new firms can quickly build up multiple terabytes worth of information that can be analyzed for insights.

JH: How long does it take to adopt BI techniques and train a company's IT operations?

JT: Companies that choose a DaaS-based implementation can do a proof of concept (POC) that can have the data delivered in the morning, with answers delivered before the end of the business day. More traditional deployments can take months or longer, depending on the technology used.

JH: Can you give me some specific examples of how BI was used by a company and some companies that are successfully using it?

JT: Two come to mind. British Telecom has been analyzing millions of call records every month, via a DaaS implementation, to determine which rate plans are most profitable, and which work to reduce customer churn. In New York, TRA is using business intelligence to compare which TV ads are being watched and which products are actually being bought, to help companies hone their advertising buys in mid-flight, saving money and producing a higher ROI.

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