If you're looking at the business intelligence (BI) software landscape, and are evaluating the many available offerings, I wouldn't be surprised if you jumped to the conclusion that every vendor offers the same product. After all, at a high-level, it can be challenging to distinguish what sets these products apart.
A common reason for this is because most companies that evaluate BI software do so in a similar manner, which invariably leads to an ambiguous view of the market. Many evaluations start light and begin with an exploration of the various dashboard galleries that vendors provide on their sites. Unfortunately, even upon a deeper dive into each software, each will likely still seem to offer similar capabilities. These might range from connections to the most common data sources, various data visualizations, myriad analytical options, mobile consumption capabilities, and the list goes on.
And why might this be? Well, because the promise of business intelligence software is often similar: each offering claims to be easy to use, scalable, and excellent performance! So, what now? How do you proceed with a BI software when each one is a mirror-image of the next? Don't worry. There is one crucial component you need to evaluate that'll make your decision much more effective in the long term, and that is flexibility!
BI tools tend to fall into one of two categories:
- Software created for a business user
- Software designed for a developer
When I say that a tool has its design targeted at a particular user, be it business or technical, I'm talking about the content creation point-of-view and not the viewing of finished reports and dashboards. Business users will consume the output of every BI platform on the market. The nuance is on who is creating the content and how far they can go with it.
There is a big difference between evaluation and real-life use. Upon a deeper dive, you will often find that business user-focused tools lack the flexibility to meet the unique technical requirements inherent to most businesses. They excel at checking off all basic level feature checkboxes and are simple to use. The problem is that you won't know what future (and feature) needs will end up being unique to you until you get to the actual implementation.
Once you get into the implementation, there might be many different points where you need the flexibility that you didn't consider during the evaluation. Features like:
- Does it support additional visualization properties to meet the needs of a picky executive?
- Are APIs available to allow for data blending between your data and a web-based data source you didn't know you wanted to use 6-months ago?
- Can you add custom scripts to solve complex data issues coming from your warehouse?
- Does it have the ability to plug in new formulas into the system to resolve the need for future and unknown marketing demands?
- Many, many more
The simple truth is that you are not going to know every requirement until you get your hands dirty and begin creating content. There was a famous saying coined by Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, the Elder. He stated that "No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy."
In business, the enemy will be the involvement of people, global competition, and, of course, everyone's greatest adversary, time. These factors will make sure that your initial needs won't be valid even a few months after choosing a tool.
Most companies approach business intelligence vendors with a list of must-have features that they need to see. Then they will decide primarily on seeing a checklist of their hypothesized features. Even if they don't realize it, an emotional choice is also a significant part of their purchase. I'm here to argue that this isn't the best way to pick one of these products.
If you want to do this right, look at the platform's overall flexibility. Was the platform designed for a business user? If it was, it's probably going to be easy to use, but it's not going to be very flexible. The scope of what BI software can do is enormous, and the goal of creating an easy to use tool that a non-technical business user can operate is just a dream. These are technical features and technical concepts that you're using. Vendors can wrap some of these more sophisticated features into a one-click function to make them accessible to a less knowledgeable user but only to a point. We don't design cars to allow non-mechanics to work on them; the same is true for BI tools. Business users can operate the tools, but only the specialized and trained ones should be playing with the internals to reap the most benefits.
While it's nice if a BI software is user-friendly, it needs to be flexible first and foremost! Ensure you verify the features you think you need and ensure that there is a way to approach problems you don't have yet. As an example, - looking for scheduled notifications via email? While you're at it, you should also check that notifications are deliverable via other technology or even technologies that are not available today via APIs. Are you looking for formula support? Make sure that you can add new formulas to the system to meet longer-term needs.
It's not easy choosing a tool on flexibility as it comes down to looking at the details and asking the right questions. If you're looking for help, watch my short video, 'Questions to Ask When Evaluating the Flexibility of a BI Tool.’
About the Author
Jeff Hainsworth is a Senior Solutions Architect at Dundas Data Visualization with over a decade and a half of experience in Business Intelligence. He has a passion for building, coding and everything visual – you know, shiny things! Check out "Off the Charts... with Jeff", his platform for great content on all things analytics, data visualizations, dashboards, and business intelligence. There’s something for everyone!