The Democratization of Business Intelligence

Business intelligence technology puts small companies on an even playing field with larger ones when it comes to data.
The Democratization of Business Intelligence
Image credit: Monty Rakusen | Getty Images

Whenever an existing technology tool suddenly becomes more accessible to a greater number of people, it is  said that it has been “democratized.” In recent years, the ability to immediately access vast amounts of digitally available on-demand business information (often via mobile means) has truly become widespread, which has in turn led to the democratization of business intelligence technology.

BI in the era of big data.

A simplified explanation of the role of business intelligence (“BI”) is that it enables organizations to use data to improve their decision-making processes. Business intelligence technology generally describes the software, hardware, and platforms designed to allow businesses to retrieve, analyze, transform and report data.

BI itself is nothing new, and large corporations around the world have been utilizing its various forms for decades. The concept of BI emerged circa 1996, when a Gartner Group report stated that “By 2000, ‘Information Democracy’ will emerge in forward-thinking enterprises, with Business Intelligence information and applications available broadly to employees, consultants, customers, suppliers, and the public.”

However, previous to the current era of democratization of BI (starting about five years ago) smaller organizations were essentially precluded from being able to really benefit from BI.

Many large corporations will typically employ a “chief data officer” to take charge of BI, a function that spans (at least on paper) operational and departmental silos. The chief data officer’s work with CIOs overlaps with a chief privacy officer, CSO, CTO, etc. Pre-democratization those smaller organizations and companies just didn’t have the means and resources necessary to collect and interpret large amounts of data… let alone deploy it as BI in any sort of meaningful or coherent way.

However, as everyone who pays attention to such things knows, we are currently in the era of big data, a new-world paradigm where companies are able to efficiently capture and analyze data at volumes that were both impossible and unthinkable just a few years ago. These advances are making it possible for SMBs to share in the insights that data analysis brings -- often without the need for data warehouses, large IT staff or expensive hardware. Pre-democratization of BI, only blue chip companies with expansive IT departments really had ready access to data results, and SMBs were relegated to relying on observation and gut instinct, which, even when honed through decades of experience and wisdom, was a pretty risky way to make big decisions. Now, the playing field is becoming level.

Related: The 4 Biggest Business-Intelligence Challenges Facing Entrepreneurs

“The mainstream SMB community is only now experiencing the reality of Gartner’s aforementioned ‘Information Democracy’ prediction,” according to  Jim Hare, an Industry Analyst at Gartner who researches BI and Advanced Analytics. “Until public cloud options were available, most SMBs simply relied on using Microsoft Excel or reporting capabilities built into the applications they were able to afford to use.”

Hare continues, “We also have  a trend in the growth of SaaS-based analytic applications focused on solving domain and industry vertical business needs, with users able to quickly setup and use these SaaS analytic applications without involving IT. And, these analytic apps tailor the analytics and information delivery for the role of the user…rather than requiring the user learn the tool.”

On that note, one interesting company clearly riding the BI democratization wave is a  venture-backed startup called Sisense, which says its mission is to “simplify business analytics for complex data.”

“Our entire focus and claim to fame is helping business people who choose to deal with data that is complex . . . without any IT investment, any data warehouse,” says Amir Orad, Sisense’s CEO. The company, headquartered in New York City with an R & D Center in Tel Aviv, has over 1,000 clients in 50 countries, ranging from SMBs to giant conglomerates.

SMBs, in fact, make up over 50 percent of Sisense’s business. According to Orad, this makes perfect sense, because “especially modern SMBs, newly formed SMBs…have way more data… because they started their companies in an era where you track everything, log everything, they’re using the cloud 24/7, and they need to make sense of it all.”

How does this particular group use BI technology to mine data for insight answers? By way of one example, we consulted James M. Levine, director of analytics for Act-On Software, Inc., a four-year old company that develops digital solutions for the marketing profession. Levine’s job is to provide analytic resources for the company and its executive team. 

Related: Look for These 5 Business Intelligence Tool Attributes to Effectively Drill Into Big Data

“Finding a BI tool with the ability to scale and grow with a business is critical in driving value,” Levine says. The company uses Sisense tools to help them gain better insight into the various data gathered and to automate the generation of time-and-labor intensive reports. During Act-On’s four-year relationship with Sisense, a central web portal for all data has been created, executives have direct access and visibility into real-time metrics for performance improvement, and the company is able to take a proactive approach to preventing churn and reducing sales loss. Critical data showing the lifecycle of a customer and allowing intelligent predictions that drive change to the Act-On business model has been a plus, Levine says. Only one additional analyst was needed to help Levine support his entire organization’s data analysis needs after implementation of the Sisense solution, without which it would have taken 15 to 20 analysts to provide the same value, he says.

“We have been able to build and design tools and processes within Sisense that have replaced other vendor tools and saved us money in the process. For example, we deliver commissions to our sales reps through Sisense, eliminating the need for a commission delivery tool,” Levine says.

The Data fits.

It is not just high tech SMBs that are benefiting from the democratization of BI, Orad says. “We have a client that designs and makes very expensive shoes, and although they are a small, boutique factory, they have one particular significantly complex data challenge.”

There are at least 10 “data needs” for each individual shoe design… such as the model, leather, size, etc. “I never knew it could be so complex. They sell custom shoes and need to know which shoe they can offer in real time by making analytical decisions on the fly. So, someone smart in this tiny shoe factory said ‘We have all this data, if we can decide analytics quickly, we can supply our customers much more rapidly by relaying via mobile phone which shoes can be readily available.”

Any structure of data for each shoe, i.e. any information… from sales to inventory, anything that is numbers, letters, names, etc. can be sliced and diced by the Sisense BI tools. This tiny shoe factory is a perfect example of how even the smallest  boutique now enjoys access to the same powerful technologies as large corporations.

Related: 3 Enterprise Business Intelligence Trends That Can Benefit Your Business

According to Orad, Sisense tools are “designed to be used by people who need to consume and analyze large amounts of data…but have little or no prior experience in data crunching.”

Hare said traditional BI platforms required IT to “install a data warehouse, integrate it with the transactional applications, model the data, and build dashboards and reports for the business users, and run reports that often took hours, making it impossible to interact with the system. By then, information would often be days or weeks old.”

With modern BI tools, the performance is “significantly faster,” Hare says, allowing business users to interact with data and gain more real-time insights. “This means business users are now empowered to build their own dashboards, explore data, collaborate and share results more quickly with the rest of the organization.”

Currently, the biggest challenge SMBs face while implementing BI and analytics tools is the lack of a skilled workforce, because most of the blue-chip well-established BI solutions require full-time database administrators (DBAs) to implement and maintain them. “Any BI solution that requires a lot of IT intervention, generally, those are not the right ones for an SMB,” says Hare.

SMBs need to look for self-serve BI solutions that are SaaS or cloud-based to minimize the need for IT resources to deploy and maintain the tools. 

With new tools like those from Sisense and other BI tech companies, crucial data that supports real-time decision making across every level of an organization is quickly available -- without prepping the data or making requests to someone in IT to pull the info.

By putting the data in the hands of those who make the decisions by using systems that can crunch big data without the need for expensive hardware or an IT background, the democratization of business intelligence is here, it’s real and it is spectacular.