Data is one of an organization’s most important assets – after all, it’s the key to making informed business decisions. Customer data, sales data, research data, transactional data and beyond come together to create a treasure trove of insights. However, it isn’t enough to collect the data — businesses must analyze the data to uncover the gems.
This is easier said than done, especially when quintillions of terabytes of data are created each day. Fortunately, business intelligence tools and software exist to ease the burden of transforming raw data into critical, real-time insights.
SEE: Hiring kit: Data Scientist (TechRepublic Premium)
We cover the basics of business intelligence, including its importance, use cases, benefits and the top software solutions any company can use to harness the power of BI.
What is business intelligence?
Business intelligence refers to the strategy of using software tools to analyze and transform business data into useful insights. The key goal of BI is to help business stakeholders make strategic business decisions based on the real-time insights gleaned from their data.
How does business intelligence work?
Business intelligence begins where data is collected. Typically, businesses gather data from a wide range of sources, including machine data and transactional data. This data is then aggregated into a single database. Once the data is centralized, it is then analyzed using software to uncover trends and patterns.
The key component of business intelligence software is the visualization of data insights. After data is analyzed, it is then placed into easy-to-read reports, graphs, charts and dashboards. Data visualization occurs in real-time, ensuring businesses have immediate and accurate access to their most critical data.
Stakeholders can view these real-time sources to quickly get a high-level overview of their business or dive deeper using reports. Using BI tools, data can be manipulated in an endless number of ways, depending on the specific needs of the business or team.
SEE: Best data visualization tools and software 2022 (TechRepublic)
Why is business intelligence important?
Business success hinges on decisions. Do you move forward with that product? Do you increase your IT budget? Do you hire more employees? Each day, decisions must be made by stakeholders that can either make or break your organization.
Luckily, you don’t have to just “go with your gut.” Instead, data is available to guide you. Unfortunately, traditional methods of business decision-making required months of data analysis via clunky spreadsheets and manual processes.
Business intelligence eliminates these processes and gives you real-time access to the insights you need to make sound decisions.
In this volatile environment, businesses must move quickly to remain competitive but do so mindfully. BI tools deliver the real-time data required to make decisions — fast. For example, businesses can be alerted to issues (such as those related to customer service or processes) immediately and solve them before they damage their reputation or bottom line.
BI supports companies in their effort to improve the customer experience. Now more than ever, consumers are increasingly intolerant to negative experiences. According to the Global Consumer Trends in 2022 report by Qualtrics, consumers are willing to walk away from companies they’ve been loyal to if those companies don’t meet their expectations.
Using BI, organizations can visualize and take action on customer trends in real-time. As a result, consumers receive the experience they crave and businesses reap the many benefits of their continued loyalty.
Example use cases for business intelligence
Some of the most common uses cases for BI include:
- Improving business process efficiencies
- Analyzing customer data to improve marketing strategies
- Viewing real-time progress toward organizational goals
- Monitoring significant events such as security threats
- Comparing current data with historical data to visualize company growth
- Understanding current product inventory
- Analyzing employee and team performance
- Visualizing and taking action on sudden drops in finances
- Monitoring the supply chain for disruptions
- Sharing goal and project progress with internal and external stakeholders
- Comparing real-time data with competitor data
Which business roles typically use BI tools?
Due to their simple tools and visualization features, anyone within an organization can benefit from using BI software. However, some individuals may use BI tools on a daily or weekly basis:
- Business intelligence analysts use BI tools to uncover patterns in data specifically for solving business problems or reaching organizational goals.
- Marketing directors use BI tools to uncover customer trends and measure the success of marketing campaigns. Insights can then be used to improve marketing efforts.
- Finance administrators use BI software to visualize the financial health of the organization often in real-time. The resulting data can help these administrators develop budgets, see potential pitfalls and even detect fraudulent activity.
- Executives, including CEOs, COOs and CFOs, often use BI tools to get a snapshot overview of all business operations. BI software can help these key stakeholders make decisions regarding finances, business strategy and more.
SEE: How to become a data scientist: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
Benefits of business intelligence software
It’s clear that BI is critical for any organization, regardless of size or industry, though BI isn’t possible without software. Business intelligence software enables businesses to harness the power of their data without sacrificing their productivity.
Fast data analysis
Data moves too fast for slow, manual processes. Spreadsheets are no longer capable of handling the amount of data generated by your business each day. And to remain competitive, you don’t have the time to sift through spreadsheets looking for insights.
Business intelligence software does all of the hard work for you. It aggregates data, analyzes it and wraps it up into a neat little package (dashboards, charts, etc.) so you can use it immediately. Plus, many of the new BI tools out there don’t require you to be a data scientist to use them.
Zero data silos
Every employee and team should have access to up-to-date data. Unfortunately, spreadsheets and other manual data management processes result in frustrating silos. These silos lead to decisions being made after visualizing only some of the data which can result in serious consequences. Using BI software, organizations have a single source of truth for all data and insights.
Automated data visualization
One of the key features of any BI solution is data visualization. When data is in an easy-to-read graph or chart, anyone, even those who aren’t technically inclined, can read, understand and glean insights from the data.
It takes a lot of time to create visuals when completed manually. Business intelligence software compiles data and creates visuals automatically and without input. These visuals can also be manipulated in real-time with just a few clicks.
Data quality is absolutely essential for business intelligence. Without high-quality data, the insights don’t matter. Luckily, many BI solutions have tools in place to help clean the data to ensure it’s free of duplicates and in one format.
For example, ETL (extract, transform, load) tools found inside BI software do this work automatically. The result is mistake-free data you can trust.
SEE: 4 steps to ensuring your analytics stay clean and healthy (TechRepublic)
Organizations often need to keep a close eye on specific KPIs and goals. Or, they may wish to be alerted when significant events occur such as outages. Many business intelligence tools offer real-time alerts and notifications via email or mobile device based on custom criteria. As a result of these alerts, teams can respond quickly to mitigate losses or celebrate wins.
It’s true that implementing business intelligence software within any organization will be an investment, but the savings may just outweigh the initial cost. For example, simply by automating tedious, manual reporting tasks, you can save thousands in labor costs each year.
By eliminating manual reporting tasks, your team has more time to spend on higher-value tasks. Plus, automation reduces data reporting errors that may result in a bad business decision.
5 important features of business intelligence software
There are many BI solutions on the market; some are robust, all-in-one solutions, while others focus on just a few aspects of business intelligence. We recommend selecting a business intelligence software platform that includes at least these five critical features.
Data collection and analysis
Through data collection, the software collects data from various internal and external sources. After data is collected, the BI software will analyze it to uncover insights. BI tools give you the ability to use custom fields and expressions, perform cross queries and other data manipulation tactics.
Many BI tools come standard with various integrations and data connectors so businesses can aggregate all of their data into one source. This includes integrations with CRM software as well as data connections with SQL Server, Google BigQuery and more.
Hyper-specific reports are no problem for many business intelligence solutions. Custom reporting enables you to change your filters, views and more with just a click.
BI tools perform data visualization automatically. This includes transforming your data into graphs, charts, tables, maps, infographics and more. Perhaps the star of the BI tool show is the dashboard, which aggregates all of your KPIs and desired data points into one view.
As we mentioned before, you don’t have to be a data scientist to use business intelligence software. Many tools feature simple controls, drag-and-drop functionality and other features to get you to your data faster.
Top business intelligence tools
Tableau is a business intelligence and analytics software built for organizations of all sizes. It’s hailed as the BI software for “everyone,” including analysts, executives and IT teams. The software suite offers various products for all stages of the data lifecycle, from data prep (Tableau Prep) to “limitless” visual analysis (Tableau Desktop).
Tableau offers many unique ways to interact with data such as statistical modeling and the ability to build custom visuals using drag and drop functionality.
SEE: Alteryx vs Tableau: BI tool comparison (TechRepublic)
Power BI is Microsoft’s data visualization tool. This powerhouse tool is focused on helping organizations develop useful, insight-rich “data experiences.” Using Power BI, businesses can connect to their data quickly and manipulate it using hundreds of built-in visuals.
Plus, Power BI includes other features such as team collaboration, robust security, built-in data connectors and more. For organizations that already use Microsoft tools such as Excel, Power BI is a no-brainer.
SEE: Power BI vs. Tableau: Business intelligence tools comparison (TechRepublic)
Sisense is a business intelligence platform built for embedding analytics within both customer and employee applications and workflows. Inside the platform, organizations will find a wide range of BI tools, including visualization, modeling, AI analytics and dashboards.
One unique feature of Sisense is the Elasticube, Sisense’s proprietary analytics cache. This cache enables businesses to aggregate and manipulate data from hundreds of sources.
SEE: Sisense vs Power BI: Software comparison (TechRepublic)
SAS has been a leader in data analytics and visualization for years. The SAS platform includes a wide range of products to fit your organization’s specific needs. For example, SAS Visual Analytics enables organizations to create interactive and dynamic reports and take advantage of predictive analytics. SAS Viya uses built-in automation and proven AI tools to uncover data insights.
Dundas BI is an end-to-end solution for business intelligence. The platform’s goal is to make unlocking the power of business data simpler for all. Dundas BI takes raw data and transforms it into actionable insights. Users benefit from dashboards, reports and more. Plus, Dundas BI is open and flexible, meaning data can be consolidated from any source.
With modern HTML5 and an open API, Dundas BI is fully customizable. And according to Dundas BI, no add-ons or additional products are required. The flexibility of the platform makes it a great choice for organizations of all sizes that want a custom data experience.
SEE: Domo BI vs. Dundas BI: Software comparison (TechRepublic)
Zoho Analytics is an all-in-one business intelligence tool that provides everything from simple data connectors to embedded analytics. Using Zoho Analytics, organizations can easily prepare their data, augment analysis with AI, create interactive reports and dashboards, collaborate with others and more.
Zoho Analytics features a simple user interface, perfect for users of all skill levels. The interface includes drag and drop functionality as well as AI and ML augmentation to simplify the data analysis and visualization process. Plus, Zoho Analytics is also offered via the cloud or on-premise, depending on your needs.