Insight from Agora Consultants

Before undertaking a BI project, make sure you can answer this question

If you have new information how will you run your organization differently? If you are not ready to make changes in your company, having new information will not contribute new value. You must be ready to break old habits. You must be ready to make new decisions based on the facts. For instance, if you are implementing a BI system to report on Sales activities, you may be faced with information that tells you that you need to: stop the sale of a non-producing product fire a sales person not hitting quota drop an unprofitable customer put more marketing dollars towards a popular product You have to be ready for process change as well. BI systems usually save labour by automating reports. Surprisingly though, people may be reluctant to stop manually preparing reports. They may be quite comfortable creating them the way they always have when they had control over exactly where the numbers came from and where they went. A Business Intelligence system can only arm you with the information about what changes need to be made – making the changes is up to you.

Is your organization inefficient with your project information?

From inception through to deployment how efficient is your organization with its information about projects? As a project goes through its lifecycle a multitude of information is collected, stored and reported on. Often this grows organically as different groups involved in a project collect and store different information. The diagram below shows this process both for an efficient and an inefficient organization.   Typically what happens in an organization is different groups are responsible for the different steps along the project lifecycle. They develop or find their own tools to fit their own specific needs. This leads to islands of information all about the same topic – projects. Problems that occur in this situation include: The same type of information stored in multiple places leads to data quality issues. An update in one place isn’t necessarily reflected in another. Information stored in different places leads to different reports being generated.  This leads to confusion as the format and interpretation of reports can be different. There is an exposure to institutional knowledge risk. Localized point solutions are often “home-grown” leading to a difficultly in supporting them if key resources leave. Data needs to be re-entered into different systems along the way. It is difficult to have traceability of a project through the lifecycle. A centralized platform address these problems and introduce additional benefits: Provides a common user experience. An organization grows with the platform. As features are added with upgrades the entire organization gets a lift. Reduces the support requirements. Agora has assisted organizations with moving from data islands to a common platform. Drop me a line if your are interested in hearing about options for your organization.

Can your organization handle the truth?

Do you need help getting your organization to stick to the facts? Is there lots of data in your organization but hesitation to share it? Be utilizing some Business Intelligence (BI) best practices these problems can be tackled. The power of BI is combining information from various data sources to form a comprehensive picture of a business function. The data source is the book of record for the business function. For BI to work effectively, the data transfers from the book of record to the reporting system (such as a datamart) without human interaction. Since each data source may exist in different business units there are often different data owners. This level of transparency and automation can be challenging in organizations. A business unit may be very concerned about “the wrong data being incorporated”. Prior to an effective BI system a business unit might manually handle the data before it is delivered to another business unit. They aren’t necessarily changing the truth, it may just be they have a level of knowledge which requires the data to be modified to met the needs of the other business unit. To create an environment which allows the seamless flow of information, undertake the following: Tackle the source system of the data to ensure the data is clean. Sometimes the hesitation to provide access to data is a concern that the data may not be correct. If there are business process that currently manually transform the data see if they can be automated and pushed back into the source system. Get Executive Sponsorship right from the top. Ultimately all business units roll up to someone. Getting that Executive to commit to unaltered information sharing will send the right message to the individual business units. Demonstrate the advantages of open information. If information flows between business units there will be a lot less requests for information that has to be prepared manually. Organizations have rich sets of data which they can use to improve their business. The data needs to be accepted unaltered to make it useful. Putting in place the right foundation will allow information to transfer more seamlessly between business units.

You have Microsoft SQL Server – Are you getting the most for your money?

Almost all companies have Microsoft SQL Server somewhere in their organization. It may have arrived there as part of a vendor application, Microsoft SharePoint deployment or custom web application. SQL Server does much more than just store data – at no additional cost! Other database tools often have additional license costs to do advanced database and reporting functionality. SQL Server has it built in. Are you doing the following? 1. Get clean – If you have a set of data but are unsure of the quality of it you can use SQL Server Data Profiling to get an understanding of the data distribution. After that you can take advantage of SQL Integration services to implement rules which you clean the data. 2. Integrate and warehouse – With SQL Server you can combine different sources of data into a central reporting database. Want to understand how sales funnel activity ultimately leads to revenue? With SQL Server Integration Services and Analysis Services you can combine Sales funnel data with Financial data into a Data Mart or Data Warehouse to get a true picture of what is happening in your organization. 3. See your data – You might have great data but no one will know without reports and dashboards. SQL Server has multiple options from ad-hoc reports to standard dashboards with SQL Reporting Services. 4. Market basket analysis – Do you have product orders and want to know which products people tend to buy together? If you are an IT shop, is there an indication which incidents happen together? Market basket analysis is just one example of the Data Mining algorithms built in to SQL Server. 5. Forecast - You know how a product has sold the past three year, but do you know what is will be in the next 3 months? With SQL Server you can use forecasting algorithms to predict what will happen next based on past data? These are just some of the examples of features SQL Server has beyond storing data. If you want to see some of these features in action, drop me a line.

Be presentable to your users

Business Intelligence solutions can loosely be divided into two components: getting the data right (by cleaning it and storing in a Data Mart) and presenting the data to the user (through dashboards and reports). Preparing the data requires lots of time and effort and time to ensure the data is clean, conformed and correct. You can only capitalize on this investment if you present the data in a form that is easy to understand and helps support decision making processes. Here are five tips for displaying data to users. Be aware of the form factor. Like it or not many people still like to print. If you know this ahead of time you can design your report or dashboard to accommodate printing. Conversely, perhaps the user will be looking at it on a laptop. Don’t be caught developing it on a large screen only to have it truncated on an Executive’s smaller laptop screen. Be consistent. A dynamic report that has different layouts depending on the data will only confuse people. The report should have the information located in the same position every time it is viewed. Imagine if your car dashboard changed location of the gauges each day of the week! Keep it simple. Don’t clutter a report with noise such as logos and decoration unless they are conveying information. A good use of decoration is to set the context of which business unit or company the report is for. A poor use is extraneous lines and shadows that don’t introduce any new meaning. Does a 3-D bar chart convey any more information than a 2-D? If not – remove the extra graphics in a 3-D chart and stick with a 2-D. Minimize the amount of thinking for the user. Again consider a car dashboard analogy. A driver needs to be able to quickly glance at the dashboard and understand what is going on so decisions can be made. Visual indicators in a report reduces the amount of interpretation that is required. For instance, if red-yellow-green indicators are displayed users can quickly direct their attention to those areas that are immediate issues. Allow a natural transition to another level of detail. Once users realizes something needs attention they should be able to drill into the detail to understand the underlying cause. Reports should be naturally linked so it is clear how a summary statistic on one report is related to detailed items on another. Reports are the basis of people making decisions. Good report design reduces the possibility of mis-interpretation, communicates issues quickly and permits users to view data at the level they need.

How to define metrics that stick

 I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. Confucius (680-740) I am often asked by customers about what industry metrics should be used for their dashboards and scorecards. The thought being that implementing best in class metrics will make them a best in class organization. However, defining and implementing metrics doesn’t necessarily mean the organization will follow along. People have to buy into the objectives and metrics. The best way to do this is for them to define them themselves. By participating in defining their strategic objectives and metrics they become the owners of them. They will understand the intent of them much better than something imposed on them. As well, the people that know your organization best are those people within the organization. They know what works and what doesn’t. In terms of finding the objectives that will make an impact and metrics to track them, your people know best. Industry metrics are a great for sources of ideas. However, when it comes to your own organization, if you want your metrics to stick you need metrics that are driven from your people.

Business Intelligence at the Art of Marketing Conference

On Tuesday March 2nd I will be in the Microsoft booth talking about Business Intelligence at The Art of Marketing conference. What does Business Intelligence have to do with Marketing? All kinds of things. With Business Intelligence you can: Use statistical techniques to segment your customers Find unprofitable customers so you can stop marketing too them Understand the products that people purchase together Find those customer advocates who are saying great things about you on social networks Forecast sales for the next quarter with statistical models There are some great speakers lined up for the conference. If you are at the conference please drop by and say hello!

How to get high-value information cheap

Have you ever been in the situation where you needed to know something about a population and don’t have the budget to measure it for everyone? By sampling a population and applying an Excel function you can obtain an approximation for the overall population. This concept is best illustrated through an example. Consider that you are responsible for product marketing at an amusement park. You need to know the proportion of boys that attend vs. females that attend so that you know how many blue vs pink sunglasses to stock. (I am using colour as a simple proxy for “sunglasses that boys like” vs. “sunglasses that girls like” – we won’t get into discussing colour and gender). You discover that the customer service folks conducted a customer satisfaction survey that included collecting gender information. We can use this sample information to draw conclusions for the entire population. The magic is through using the Binomial distribution. I won’t get into the math details her but for those so inclined details of this distribution is on wikipedia. Utilizing the distribution you can calculate confidence intervals based on a confidence level. The more samples you use the tighter the confidence interval. The great thing is it doesn’t matter if the overall population is 2000 or 200,000, provided you do random sampling the confidence interval results are the same. If we observe that 30% of the people who responded on the survey are male and we want a 90% confidence level, the following table shows the confidence interval based on the number of samples we take. Number of samples Low confidence interval High confidence interval 100 23% 38% 300 26% 34% 500 27% 33% 1000 28% 32% For example, if we have 300 samples we can be 90% sure that between 26% and 34% of the entire population is male (regardless of the sample size). Microsoft Excel provides the CRITBINOM function to help calculate these values. Note that to use this method you need to ensure that you are doing a random sampling. This means that the samples need to happen across different factors that might influence the results. In the amusement park example, if you did all the surveys just as the local girls school arrived for their annual trip you certainly wouldn’t be able to apply the results to the entire population. When conducting measurements within your organization sampling is a cost-effective, statistically relevant way of getting information you need when you don’t require the exact value.