With the availability of lower-cost offerings, and a userbase more educated about what business intelligence is and can do for them, BIis becoming an understandable, usable and affordable initiative for small tomidsized businesses and CPA firms.
Traditionally, resellers and internal IT staffs have beenresponsible for deciphering and implementing BI, usually at a larger,enterprise level and at a high cost for solutions that can run in the hundredsor thousands of dollars. While larger organizations have embraced BI, small andmidsized businesses had, for the most part, shied away due to additional costsfor licensing and training and the complexities of maintaining one moreapplication.
Lately, however there are signs of change.
A recent survey from tech concern Gartner of 1,500 chiefinformation officers found that even with tight technology budgets and atroubled economy, business intelligence remains among the top spendingpriorities.
At its most basic level, business intelligence provideshistorical, current and predictive views of business operations. Commonfunctions of BI technologies include reporting, online analytical processing,analytics, data mining, business performance management, benchmarking, textmining, and predictive analytics.
BI AS A PROFIT TOOL
According to high-profile technology consultants likeRandy Johnston, in a down economy the ability to make decisions sooner ratherthan later can be the difference between reaching sales goals and retainingclients or customers, or not.
"It is such a great time for BI right now, peopleare trying to do the right things and better things with the resources theyhave," said Johnston "It lets you see what's working, what's not, andwhat you should do that you're not. In this economy, that is soimportant."
Johnston claims that attendance at his own BI trainingand educational seminars has increased "four-fold" over the past fewyears and that the most important factor for BI's wider adoption has beenseeing the increased revenue potential, when used both internally andexternally.
For resellers and CPA firms alike, understanding BI andshowing their clients how they can potentially make more money - in many casesby getting "intelligence" reports from the ERP and CRM systems theyalready have - can be a boon for their own business.
"Especially if you are a CPA firm, even going withlow-end products, you can have an exceptionally high value-add. Many docompliance work already; this is a big 'in' for them (to get additional revenuefor BI work), plus it lets CPAs leverage their financial expertise in a bigway," said Johnston.
PENETRATING CPA FIRMS
Firms such as Red Bank, N.J.-based WithumSmith+Brown areamong a growing number of firms that recognize financial benefits from BI bothat a firm and client level. Using BI as a value-add and client retention toolstarted slowly, but is paying off for the firm.
"Now we do our compliance work and we haveadditional speaking points with the clients, which strengthens the firm'srelationship. In this economy we have to prove even more that we are showingour value," said James Bourke, CPA and Certified Information TechnologyProfessional at WSB. Bourke pointed out that businesses are also ripe for BIwork because the accounting and CRM systems they already have contain the datathey need to see how their businesses can be improved, though it may stillinvolve a bit of consulting work from a CPA firm or VAR.
"Right now there are a ton of integrated accountingsolutions out there and you get something that sits on top of that to pull outthe data that's in there intelligibly, not just report on it but interpret itand make recommendations. That's real value," said Bourke.
Bellevue, Wash.-based Clark Nuber has seen the advantagesof having BI internally, and realized it was not as cost-prohibitive as somefirms believe. The practice primarily uses BI for its tax business.
"We have a couple of systems we use, mainly for ourtax department whenever a new announcement comes out, we can see what clientsthe law applies to, that's been really important for us," said WinnRichardson, senior manager of the firm's accounting services group.
With the BI tools Clark Nuber has, the firm is "ableto track administrative tax prep so we can tell at the end of a return how effectivethrough-puts were. We can see after this season what we need to do," saidRichardson. "I really feel the things we've put in place have helped withefficiency internally."
For some firms such as Salina, Kan. -based Kennedy &Coe, business intelligence has allowed them more real-time scheduling andperformance measurement data, which, in turn, it has trained other CPA firms touse.
"CPA firms run reports every month to see how theydo. And what we are able to do is look at the real time, not at end of themonth, when it really makes a difference," reported the firm's IT directorand principal, Greg Davis. "We have shown our employee scheduling to 20 ormore CPA firms. We also have eight offices and staff in all those offices. Weneed all need real-time access to the data. The tools we have allow us to dothat."
In many cases though, particularly with small to midsizedbusinesses, paying for an additional solution or upgrade is simply not anaffordable option. Instead, being shown how to use what they already have ismore valuable.
Miami-based reseller and technology consultant AxisGlobal Partners has seen businesses in its home state struggle tremendouslyover the past year or so, and buying or upgrading software has simply not beena top priority. In this case, offering business intelligence has helpedgenerate new business for Axis.
"People are looking at their companies differentlybecause of the economy, and the big fear to overcome is costs. BI is the onesolution that has kept us in business," revealed Axis principal MannyBuigas. "These days you have to produce more with less people. When wecreate a data warehouse for a client, it's fresh everyday. It's not hours andhours or waiting for reports to export to a spreadsheet."
Buigas also noted that for the level of businessintelligence work they do, once they start showing clients the reports, they"get it" and are not as reluctant to spend for the services to getthe reports they need. BI in many cases is also something businesses don't haveto buy a license for, since they are utilizing their existing ERP and CRM systems.
"A strong selling point of BI is that you canvisualize your operations right away. Show [clients] a business intelligencetool and they are asking questions you never thought of, making connectionsfrom one system to another," said Buigas. "When we embedded BI intoclients' CRM systems, they were blown away. A sales guy is now looking at hisclients very differently. Without BI it would be much tougher to differentiateourselves, I think."
NEW ENTRANTS AND OFFERINGS
Buigas and others noted there are some very strong BIsolutions available on the market today, many of which are less costly or"matured" with changing market needs, such as being available asSoftware-as-a-Service or in cloud computing form.
Vancouver, B.C.-based Indicee Inc. is one of the newer BIvendors, though their background makes them ripe to take advantage of thecurrent market place. Indicee was founded in 2008 by the creators ofCrystalReports - the reporting backbone of many of today's ERP systems.
Indicee's offering is simple: a SaaS solution that"sits on top" of existing ERP and CRM solutions and extracts the"right reports for the right people" in a company or organization,according to chief executive and founder Mark Cunningham.
"BI has always had a technical barrier, no onereally knew how to do it except the people that installed the systems andtrained you on it. We said, take your CrystalReports, run those, stick thoseinto Indicee and we will extract the data and allow you to walk through it in asimple, point-and-click way," said Cunningham.
Indicee is mainly targeting 100-1,000-person companies,in addition to accounting organizations in Canada and the U.S.
San Mateo, Calif.-based NetSuite Inc. has, for severalyears, offered a solely Web-based packaged business intelligence system, withmulti-dashboard capabilities. It is now, it believes, the leading solution foranyone looking for BI in cloud computing form.
NetSuite director of solutions marketing Paul Turnerbelieves business intelligence still is not being adopted as widely as it couldbe, mainly because there is still more understanding needed of the data a BItool can produce.
"Businesses are getting more diverse. There is Webinfo, e-mail marketing, professional services, finances and its difficult forbusinesses to get. When I speak to customers I see a gap between adoptingbest-in-class analytics and not, and that gap is getting wider." saidTurner. "With NetSuite you can analyze things like where leads are comingfrom, and analyze all the way through to close and fulfillment. We give youbookings, billings, backlogs, real-time dashboards and the businesses that havethese are able to get a much more integrated view of their business."
The major ERP vendors such as Sage and Microsoft Dynamicsare also making a bigger play for the BI space, for the most part utilizingtheir existing technologies.
In December, Sage launched Sage Accpac Intelligence - anExcel-based product embedded in the ERP system. It provides an interface betweenthe ERP and Excel reporting, offering an opportunity to choose which data auser wants to pull or link to multiple databases. Later this year Sage alsoplans to release a similar product for its MAS 90 and MAS 200 products and, bythe end of the year, its MAS 500 product.
Microsoft Dynamics this spring plans to release a"more simplified" version of BI, building BI into its Office 2010product. It will have PowerPivot, an add-on for Excel that will allow users topull usable data from a variety of CRM systems.
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