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How to unlock the power of business intelligence

The inside scoop on advanced business intelligence tools and what they can do for your SMB.

Imagine you could see trends in your business developing in real-time, taking insights from the data to make more informed decisions. How would it change how you run your operation? How would it affect your bottom line?

Advanced business analysis tools that used to be limited to large corporations, or could only be managed by specialized data analysts and IT professionals, are making the journey from the back office to the desktop. In fact, Gartner expects global revenue in business intelligence and analytics software to grow to nearly $23 billion worldwide by 2020.

Here is what you need to know about advanced business intelligence (BI) tools and how your business can take advantage.

What is business intelligence?

What is business intelligence

No one is quite sure who coined the term “business intelligence.” Peter Luhn, who originated the field of business analytics at IBM in the 1950s is one candidate. Howard Dresner applied the term early in the digital age in 1989, but some version of it has been in use since the 1860s.

Nowadays, business intelligence refers to technology-driven analysis and presentation of actionable data. In plain language, business intelligence helps you understand what’s going on in your business in new ways so that you can make more informed strategic decisions.

Desktop and even mobile business intelligence tools can handle large amounts of data, and offer visualization charts and other infographics — from heat maps showing sales, to inventory levels, to process efficiency breakdowns. They feature dashboards and scorecards that show you your business metrics and performance indicators in a straightforward way, as well as offering new perspectives on it.

Taking a close look at your business data naturally helps you see things differently, understand trends, and identify new opportunities you might have otherwise overlooked. But the special ingredient with today’s BI tools, as the business analyst Frank Coker first observed, is that they can combine data from both the market and internal sources. They offer a composite, complete picture that you can’t derive from either set of data by itself.

The journey to everywhere

For a long time, BI really was a high-end, big-data solution for multinational-sized enterprises. And it’s true that a big part of the market is still tailored to companies that need to process vast amounts of information.

But, like much else, the nature of BI has changed with the exponential increase in processing power and the advent of instant, Internet-based communication. Today’s BI tools can collect, analyze and convert data into understandable reports for enterprises of any size, and they are flexible enough that they can connect to a diverse range of data sources (such as QuickBooks, Excel, Google Analytics and even Facebook).

The advantages of business intelligence

What is business intelligence

Just as importantly, the tools are simple enough to use that you don’t have to be a data architect to use them. Almost anyone can be a BI expert. Here is a breakdown of some of the key advantages of business intelligence:

Easy accessibility: Gone are the days when you needed a full IT department to produce useful business analysis — BI tools are designed to be connected to any data source and generate different kinds of reports out of the box.

Accelerating and improving decision making: The data discovery offered by BI tools give you a full, accurate picture of your business at every level, often in real-time, making it easier for you to chart the course you choose.

Enhanced business functioning: The insights generated by and derived from BI tools can help you increase operational efficiency and optimize your current processes.

Insights and forecasts: BI tools can help you identify market trends, potential weak spots, and expected results, revealing unexpected truths about your day-to-day and bottom line.

The ball is in your court

Microsoft Power BI is a popular solution because of its excellent visualization tools, cost effectiveness and integration with hundreds of different data sources. Tableau is a visually slick alternative, with drag and drop analytics and intuitive dashboards.

With many other solutions available, from Sisense to Looker to Yellowfin to Rakam, offering different features and levels of customization — the choice, and the future, is yours.

Up Next: The real-world business applications of virtual reality.

Damian Tarnopolsky

Damian Tarnopolsky is a writer, editor and teacher. His articles and reviews appear regularly in the national press and online, in such publications as The Walrus, the Literary Review of Canada, Partisan, and The Globe and Mail, and he is the proprietor of Slingsby and Dixon, a Canadian editorial communications firm.

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