Best Business Intelligence software of 2020
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Business intelligence software is a high-powered tool to use data to make better decisions. Business intelligence has its roots in data analytics, but the goal isn’t just to fit a trend line: it’s to provide your company’s decision-makers with accurate and insightful information that can help them make the right decision when faced with a difficult problem.
Business intelligence software makes it easy to turn raw data into powerful graphs and visualizations, create customized key performance indicator (KPI) dashboards for your employees, and set up automated notifications to alert the right people when a KPI starts to drop.
Why use business intelligence software?
Business intelligence is all about using data to enable better decisions. In the age of information, everyone has data, but what distinguishes companies that use data to get ahead is how they put that data to use.
No matter how much sophisticated analytical work you do with your company’s data, and no matter how much of it you have, it’s not going to help you unless that data is going to the right person, in the right format, to help him or her make better decisions.
Business intelligence exists at the crossroads of data visualization, data analytics, and big data. Business intelligence, or BI, is a philosophy that is centered around how to leverage your data for a competitive advantage.
Business intelligence software lets you get away from half-finished and disorganized Excel spreadsheets and low-quality, out-of-date charts and plots. The software presents a unified framework for taking data in its raw form in your company’s data warehouse, transforming and analyzing it, and presenting the results of these analyses in a concise and easily interpretable way.
Your product development team, marketing team, and sales teams don’t want to see complicated statistical models or huge tables of raw data—they want a simple and easy to interpret plot, chart, or dashboard that tells them exactly what they need to know, and nothing more.
Business intelligence software is also great for making sure your data is high-quality. When your company is attempting to use big data for better decision-making, many analysis gurus talk about the “three Vs”: velocity, volume, and variety. However, there’s another ‘V’ that’s even more important, which is veracity—is your data really telling you what you think it’s telling you?
If you’ve been business intelligence and analytics long enough, you’ve surely seen examples to the contrary: someone mis-labeled a spreadsheet, copied the wrong column of data, or used last quarter’s data instead of this quarter’s data.
It’s hard to overstate the repercussions of mistakes like this: decisions made on bad data are often worse than decisions made on no data at all. Because business intelligence software provides you with one unified framework for analyzing your data, the rate of human error is vastly reduced.
Ultimately, business intelligence software is all about getting a handle on your company’s internal data. Even small businesses and nonprofits are typically sitting on far more data than any one person could practically use without some type of automated software, and many smaller outfits don’t have the expertise or the time to build their own analytics and intelligence frameworks from scratch.
Before you even worry about trying to get data on your competition, you should examine what data you have that you haven’t put to any use. Even relatively small websites, for example, can get thousands of hits per day. Where are these hits coming from? What content are they engaged with? How many of them make a purchase?
Business intelligence software can read in data like this (perhaps from your SEO software) and turn it into meaningful insights for your business’s next plan of action. Should you launch a new product line, or update and improve a product you already have? What determines whether a sales lead ultimately converts to a buyer? How can you make your customers have a better experience in your consulting sessions?
Business intelligence is about giving you information to answer these kinds of questions. It’s great at the basics, too (questions like “what time of year are your sales most profitable?”) but the overarching idea is about turning low-level analysis (on profits, sales, etc.) into high-level insights and decisions.
Who uses business intelligence software?
If your company is big enough, the person at the head of your business intelligence software is probably going to be your chief information officer (CIO) and his or her direct reports. Increasingly, companies are hiring and appointing chief data officer (CDO) specifically to manage data, along with their direct reports.
While these people are at the head of your business intelligence strategy, they aren’t usually going to be the ones getting their hands dirty with the data or the software itself. Instead, that responsibility is going to fall to your data analytics or business analytics and intelligence teams.
These should be the people in charge of setting up database queries, making sure the right data gets into the database, setting up analytics pipelines, and creating data visualizations and KPI dashboards.
In business intelligence, there is a pyramid-like hierarchy that starts at the bottom level with raw data. Your data engineers, data analysts, and business intelligence team are responsible for taking the raw data, extracting useful insights from it, and displaying them in an intelligible and easily interpretable way. These steps consist of data analysis and data visualization.
Once the insights you want have been extracted from the data, they need to go to the right people. That’s where the CIO, CDO, and related individuals come into play.
If things are running smoothly at your company, they won’t be the ones tracking down bugs in a MySQL query—they’ll be taking your data visualizations to the sales or marketing or finance teams, going over dashboard KPIs, and responding to any performance-related notifications or alerts that crop up.
Your BI team needs to work in close conjunction with all of the people who will be using a business intelligence software dashboard. If, for example, your CIO wants the marketing team to have access to a dashboard giving them data on the success of an ongoing marketing campaign, you’ll need to meet with the marketing team to figure out exactly what information they need, how to present that information in an easily interpreted format, and how to make sure their dashboard is as up-to-date as possible.
That may involve getting your IT team or your data engineering team involved to make sure your business intelligence software has access to the right data, at the right time, in the right format.
Compared to many other types of business software, getting a business intelligence software system up and running tends to involve a lot more people, but that’s the price for intelligence.
When you want broad and useful insights, you need a lot of involved parties to make sure that your business intelligence investment is delivering on its promise.
Getting all of the key players involved early on will help enormously with change management, and will ultimately pay off when your company is better able to make good decisions that help the bottom line.
A good business intelligence software system will let you build simple but powerful dashboards displaying key performance indicators. Your KPIs tell you if your performance is on target: for one division, the KPIs might be sales deals closed in the last month, sales leads generated, and number of requests for quotes. For another, it might be the open rate and the click-through rate on the latest batch of marketing emails.
A good business intelligence software will make it easy to set up these kinds of KPI dashboard and to customize them for different divisions, and indeed different individual employees.
These dashboards are one of the biggest strengths of business intelligence, and showcase its ability to take raw data and turn it into useful insights. With some good data engineering, data analysis, and data visualization (all possible in a solid business intelligence software setup), you can get your employees exactly the insights they need, and nothing they don’t.
Higher-end business intelligence software will let you set up customizable alerts and notifications. Some people don’t need to stare at a dashboard every day—they just need to be on call to solve problems when they crop up.
For this application, many higher end business intelligence systems allow you to set up customizable notifications. If a certain KPI goes outside of a pre-specified range, or if there is no new data being generated in a certain data vertical within your company, you can set up a list of people who will get an email or text message alert.
Setting these alerts takes some expert knowledge, though: obviously, the intent is to make sure everything is running smoothly. However, you don’t want to make the tolerances too low, otherwise you’ll be sending out lots of false alarms.
On the other hand, if your notifications don’t go out until a situation is already in dire circumstances, your alert system isn’t doing its job very well either. Customizable alerts and notifications are very useful, but need to be set up with some forethought.
The very best business intelligence systems offer natural language processing (NLP) for gleaning insights from unstructured data. Suppose your company has a database of feedback comments from customers after their interactions with your customer service team. If this feedback consists of a 0-10 scale, or one to five star ratings, it’s pretty easy to turn those numbers into a useful insight.
But what if the database also includes raw text comments from your customers? Traditional business intelligence has no methods to deal with this, but thanks to remarkable advances in a field of artificial intelligence research called natural language processing, or NLP for short, which can glean useful insights like user sentiment (positive, neutral, negative) from unstructured data like comments, customer chat exchanges, or free-form reviews.
The performance of NLP in business intelligence software depends strongly on the software that is implementing it, so to get useful NLP data insights, you’ll need to go with one of the top software packages, and these don’t come cheap.
But that’s the price of getting unprecedented insights from unstructured data. Applications like NLP in BI are starting to blur the line between business intelligence and data science, as the ability to extract useful insights from more challenging datasets expands.
Companies whose employees work on the go will want business intelligence software that comes with a mobile app. Business intelligence dashboards with your KPIs are great, but what about when you are traveling? One of the best new features in many of the top business intelligence software platforms recently has been the ability to view and interact with your KPI dashboards on mobile devices.
This is a game changer for sales representatives, go-live teams, and others who are frequently on the road, but still need to stay posted on their team’s performance. If you are looking into a business intelligence software system, make sure it supports Android and iOS devices if you will have a large number of employees with different devices accessing the BI dashboards.
Make sure you try out your dashboards as well—older systems could have problems with data getting chopped off on smaller screens, or not adapting well to mobile devices. Newer software should not have this problem.
Q: What problems does business intelligence solve?
A: As a rule, the people who get paid the most at any company are the ones who make the most consequential decisions. The better those decisions are made, the better the company will do. Big decisions, like how to steer R&D efforts, where to focus your marketing campaigns, and whether to change your customer service strategy, hinge on having a clear picture of the situation at hand.
Relying purely on instincts won’t cut it; instead, companies and leaders who use data to get insights on big decisions are the ones who get ahead. Business intelligence software is all about putting the insights from data into the right hands.
Business intelligence can’t get rid of uncertainty, but it can definitely reduce it. Business intelligence helps you uncover the underlying causes of the issues your company is facing, whether that’s sluggish sales, disappointing marketing results, or problems in your product development pipeline. If there’s a problem, and there’s data surrounding it, business intelligence can give you insights on how you could go about solving it.
Q: Can small businesses benefit from business intelligence software?
A: In many ways, small businesses have even more to gain from applying business intelligence. Large corporations have been using some form of business intelligence for a long time, but with the rise of easy to use business intelligence software platforms, not to mention the vast increase in the amount of data available even to small mom & pop shops, small businesses are better positioned than ever to radically improve the efficiency of their business.
Should you change your store hours on the weekend? How much of an increase in sales could you get if your online store accepted international orders? What type of items generate the best customer feedback? These are small business questions that business intelligence software is extremely well-suited to answer.
Further, because employees of small businesses are so well-enmeshed with the details of the business, they often have better intuition on how to act when presented with good business intelligence data.
Q: Can insurance companies benefit from business intelligence software?
A: Insurance was one of the earliest industries to adopt business intelligence, due to the intrinsically quantitative nature of insurance. While a lot of data in the insurance business goes towards actuarial analysis, there are still plenty of areas where traditional business intelligence shines: marketing and sales are just two examples.
Figuring out where to expand your services, which prospective customers are the best sales leads, and which agents are performing the best are all problems that can be very easily tackled using business intelligence software. Applying business intelligence to the non-actuarial sides of business can help expand your business and give you better insights into success.
Q: Are data discovery and data visualization part of business intelligence software?
A: Data discovery is the first step in conducting business intelligence—whether it’s part of the process of using business intelligence software might be debatable. Some data experts suggest that the process of data discovery and data cleaning fall within the purview of data engineering; only once data is cleaned and organized and sent to a data warehouse can it enter the business intelligence workflow.
On the other hand, finding, extracting, and transforming your data form the basis for any type of data analysis, so other data experts argue that data discovery should be considered the first step of business intelligence.
One thing that’s not up for debate is the role of data visualization: making excellent explanatory charts and plots is a core competency area for anyone working in business intelligence. Fortunately, making great visualizations is easy with any good business intelligence software package.
Q: What is the difference between business intelligence and data science?
A: Data science and business analytics share a lot in common, but the key distinguishing points boil down to data strategies and data analysis tools. Business intelligence is all about getting insights from data that answer questions that your decision-makers have.
Which of your company’s factories has the highest output? What time of year are sales the greatest? These are a priori questions that are answerable with the data you already have, and fall squarely in the domain of business intelligence.
Business intelligence is usually conducted on specially-made software platforms like SAP BusinessObjects, Oracle BI, Tableau, and Domo. On the other hand, data science is all about analyzing data in its raw form to uncover new questions or surprising and unexpected relationships.
Data science is far more programming-heavy, relying on statistical modeling and machine learning techniques in tools like R and Python. As technologies developed for data science mature, there are increasing amounts of crossover with business intelligence.
One excellent example is the emergence of natural language processing (NLP) tools in top-end business intelligence software: NLP used to be squarely in the domain of exploratory data science, but is now transitioning into a more mature technology.
Q: What are some examples of business intelligence?
A: Here are a few examples of business intelligence: suppose your company runs a business-to-business project management consultancy. Your team might be interested in what types of projects tend to get behind schedule, what types of projects tend to create the most revenue, and which of your sales leads are likely to become customers.
On all of these fronts, you have a lot of data: contract dates, completion dates, invoice amounts, sales lead data from your CRM system, and final sales contracts. How do you use these data to make more informed decisions? This is where business intelligence comes in.
Good application of business intelligence can identify which steps in your projects tend to cause the most delays, what characteristics are most predictive of converting a sales lead to a buyer, and which types of projects are most profitable.
Taking these insights, you can use business intelligence software to set up dashboards to keep projects on target, maintain relationships with the most promising sales leads, and flag potentially profitable project opportunities as soon as they come up. It’s easy to see how implementing a strategy like this can lead to more revenue and better decision-making about the future of your business.
If you want to make more informed decisions about your business, you need business intelligence software. Whether you are a small company or a large corporation, chances are you could be using the data you already have to make better decisions and get ahead.
Business intelligence software is all about turning raw data into useful insights with informative visualization tools and helpful customizable dashboards. Applying business intelligence software in the right way can keep everybody on your team performing at peak capacity.