For decades now, business intelligence — the strategies and technologies that organizations use to analyze and understand their data — has long been considered the domain of big business. While the technological advances of BI tools have allowed large organizations to leap forward in profitability and market responsiveness, most smaller organizations have sat by, often assuming that BI solutions were too costly, too cumbersome, or too advanced to be cost-effective for a business of their size.
But as the technology continues to evolve, powerful BI software has become more available, accessible, and more affordable for the smaller set. More self-service tools are being designed for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). As a result, even small businesses (1-100 employees) and medium-sized enterprises (100-1000 employees) can reap many of the crucial benefits that Big Business gets from their BI systems.
And apparently, more SMEs are doing just that. Chiefly driven by the need to improve performance and revenues in sales and marketing departments, small and medium-sized businesses are finally getting on the bandwagon, adopting or upgrading to BI systems in record numbers. Forbes reports that in 2018, businesses with under 100 employees have the highest rate of BI penetration or adoption.
Their priorities? According to Forbes, over the last four years, SMEs have been prioritizing big data, data management, and data catalogs, with a continued focus on dashboards, reporting, data warehousing, and advanced visualization.
Their objectives? SMEs are investing in BI solutions to grow their revenues, improve their decision-making, and increase their competitive edge. They want to improve their decision-making around marketing and sales, to get more in tune with their customers and become more profitable. Where larger organizations invest in BI predominantly for improvements in operational efficiency, smaller organizations use analytics and BI to concentrate more on expanding their customer base and holding on to the customers they already have. Manufacturing companies also focus their analytics and BI solutions on increasing production quality and to improve production scheduling.
What can BI solutions do for SMEs?
BI solutions are proving themselves to be well-suited to the small and medium-sized business arena. After all, if your business is collecting and operating with ever-growing volumes of data, it makes sense to put to work the tools that can extract the actionable insights and other metrics that can streamline your organization. Here are the seven of the most compelling benefits of BI for small business:
- Better, smarter decision-making
By accessing historical, current and real-time data, data analytics and business dashboards can run complex calculations and return insights — on performance, comparisons, percentages — that elevate decision-making. Some BI solutions provide organization-wide data warehousing and access to the company’s disparate data sources, so that the results of the BI data crunching reflects performance of the entire organization, giving owners and executives better decision-making power.
- Time savings
Small businesses notice that BI tools save time in virtually every department, from sales and marketing to finance and IT. Systems get streamlined as numerous repetitive tasks get automated.
- Easy-to-understand visuals
One of the first things people notice about BI solutions and dashboards is how clearly and directly bottom-line metrics are delivered. Visual elements like graphs and charts, and metaphors like gauges and maps, make it a no-brainer to absorb the results of the innumerable, complex calculations that are performed across the business’ volumes of data. The data’s story is told with intuitive ease.
- Powerful, actionable insights
BI tools allow entrepreneurs to keep their finger on the pulse of every aspect of their business that they have data for. From profitability, revenues, sales volumes, and growth metrics to customer satisfaction, and everything in between, managers can get real-time metrics and use them to make informed decisions to take the shortest path to profitability and business development.
- Predictive analytics
Predictive analytics helps businesses anticipate customer needs and wants in order to extend customer loyalty and engagement. BI predictive tools help businesses forecast changes in market demands, develop customer-centric marketing strategies, and keep pricing structures competitive. Predictive analytics can also help with budgeting and keeping costs down.
- Knowing what’s working and what’s not
Knowledge is power. BI solutions can provide instant access to manufacturing costs, product inventory, progress of sales projections, and the like, and how well each department is adhering to its budget. Managers can find out what products are selling best, at what margins, at the click of a button. Some advanced dashboards include customized alerts that inform those who need to know when targets are missed or achieved.
- Empowered employees
When teams need to be informed, employees can run complex queries without needing IT involvement to get their questions answered. They can access work-related information instantly — filtered if necessary — regardless of their location. With this level of access, any team member can be empowered to make the informed decisions they need to make in a timely fashion.
- Transparent collaboration
Communication and collaboration are essential in any business, and more so in smaller ones, and BI solutions allow team members to easily access relevant, up-to-date data and use it in real time. BI tools often provide simple and intuitive ways to share data and insights inter- or intra-departments.
Getting started with BI for small business
To get started, it may be useful to know that the six areas that are typically the focus of BI insights and analytics are:
- Overall financial-performance metrics
- Customer satisfaction
- Customer profiles
- Performance of internal processes
- Employee performance
- Return on investment for departments, locations, campaigns, and the business as a whole
For greatest return on investment, BI should be applied to every domain of the organization: IT, marketing, sales, customer development, finance, and so forth to address a variety of issues. Each department can connect their own data sources (Google Analytics, CSV files, SQL databases, etc.) to reap the business insights that are most significant to them.
Top BI features for small business
As you search for the right BI tool for your organization, consider these essential features:
- Data visualization
As technology evolves, visual images play a larger and larger role in communication methods. When it comes to delivering essential insights and actionable metrics, data visualization does it best. With engaging and intuitive visual metaphors, the task of accessing the dry results of data analytics becomes more efficient and more enjoyable. Visualization tools let CEOs and stakeholders alike grasp the results of complex calculations, recognize patterns, identify trends and understand key take-aways that would otherwise take a lot longer to process.
Data visualization tools also enable users to interact with the data, drilling down to discover what data is feeding what results. Sometimes users can even change variables to see the effects. User engagement typically inspires more in-depth analysis, further improving decision-making.
- Integrated data sources
While the data used by disparate business departments is often isolated, organizations of any size get the most value from BI tools that connect their distinct data sources into one virtual system. BI solutions that incorporate cloud-based integrated data warehousing allow executives to monitor performance, identify success and failures, and measure progress towards goals, across the entire organization.
- Live dashboards
Live dashboards give smaller businesses a competitive advantage with access to real-time data whenever they want it. It allows them to respond to up-to-the minute status of sales transactions, progress towards benchmarks, customer responsiveness, and more. Auto-refresh features ensure that everyone being served by the dashboards is fully informed and no one is left in the dark. Live dashboards mean that decision-makers can jump on opportunities or course-correct with minimal response time.
- Support for collaboration
Whether it’s in the boardroom, pre-sales meetings, client conferences, or team functions, the insights from BI dashboards get a lot of mileage when they are shared among stakeholders. BI dashboard tools that allow you to share links to real-time statistics with superiors, colleagues, or clients can help eliminate wasted time and accelerate decision-making. Concerns about version compatibility become a non-issue, and no one has to endure endless streams of emails to stay in the loop.