Business Intelligence for the masses: a new way of making decisions

Tools like Microsoft's Power BI can really help
Tools like Microsoft's Power BI can really help

Business Intelligence (BI) as a discipline is now mature, with most organisations using data warehouses and BI tools to support their decision-making. The search is on for ways to make the most of that data, extracting every last gram of value in order to gain a competitive advantage.

Buzzword-heavy areas such as predictive analytics and big data are the obvious signs of this search, but what about giving more people access to the information? Why is 'BI for the masses' important, and how can you get there?

The long tail concept

Many people will be aware of the term 'long tail'. It's the idea that online retailers like Amazon make more money from less well-known books and movies than from the big sellers. This is because there are so many more of the obscure products than the popular ones. Even though they sell relatively few, the 'long tail' of the sales chart is so long that, overall, all those small sales figures add up to something really significant.

Now think of the decisions being made in your organisation every day. You'll have several levels of seniority, from top managers, through to people on the shop floor. Each person is making all kinds of decisions on a daily basis.

The executives are making high-level strategic ones, helped by the BI provided by the IT department. Due to the nature of management, there are fewer of these people (and therefore fewer decisions being made) than the main 'doers' in the organisation. All these 'doers' are making decisions too, however small. And this long tail of decision-making makes a huge difference to your organisation, especially when you consider the collective impact.

The challenge

The challenge is how to give access to data and BI tools to everyone in your organisation, to support all decisions and help give you that competitive advantage you want. It's not easy: by the nature of the long tail, there are many more different types of decision that need to be supported, and your IT department is unlikely to be able to devote the time to making all the different reports to support each and every one.

Achieving success

So how do you put the power of BI in the hands of all your staff? The key is to take a multipronged approach. New data discovery tools have made it possible for more people to self-serve their BI than ever before, and tools such as Microsoft's Power BI are certainly part of the puzzle.

But there are many challenges associated with self-service BI, and these tools alone won't meet the challenge. A complementary approach is to embed BI in the processes and tools that people use on a day-to-day basis. They may not even realise they're using BI, but having the data in front of them, at exactly the time they need it, supports their decision in about the most effective way possible.

Real rewards

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to supporting the long tail of decision making, but simply recognising the importance of all those little decisions helps reveal there is another way to gain competitive advantage rather than throwing money at the next BI buzzword – investing in the accessibility and reach of BI in your organisation can reap real rewards.

  • Richard Back is a Business Intelligence architect at IPL