Can't afford BI? Try the BI analytics tools in everyday software

Lauren Gibbons Paul, Contributor

Midmarket manufacturers who have decided that business intelligence (BI) analytics tools are out of their price range might find what they need right under their noses. Experts say much of what is called analytics and BI can be done by using tools they already have-- but in a more analytical way.

“Use what you have” is a really smart approach to buying BI on a budget, especially for manufacturers, which are typically cash-strapped, said Marty Carney, CEO of Dallas-based WCI Consulting Inc. Manufacturers have been so focused on heads-down cost cutting and boosting efficiencies they have been wary of making big investments into things like BI.

“They’re looking at how to justify the cost and it just doesn’t make sense,” Carney said.

The good news is they can find many of the analytical capabilities they need within the software they are already using. Cost: Gratis.

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Where’s that BI analytics tool anyway?

The first handy tool that comes to mind is Microsoft Excel, the application millions use every day for quick-and-dirty analytics. But there are other types of software that feature analytical abilities -- categories such as enterprise search, collaboration and knowledge management.

Knowing how to tap these capabilities is not always straightforward, and many companies use nowhere near the full range of capabilities of their software applications, according to experts. For those who don’t know where to begin, there are professionals who will help them tweak business processes and train users where necessary so they get the most out of existing software.

Rachael Narel, engagement manager for SWC Technology Partners, often helps mid-size companies use the BI features that reside in their existing systems, especially Microsoft applications such as the SQL Server database and SharePoint collaboration platform, as well as Excel. “Companies come to us and say, ‘We have all of this, we don’t know how to use it,’ ” said Narel, who is based in Oakbrook, Ill. SWC goes in and configures the tools to yield their best analytical results and to train users, she said.

“It doesn’t take that much training,” as just about everyone is familiar with the user interfaces of Microsoft Office products, Narel said. “Everyone is used to using Microsoft Office. The hardest part is setting up the data elements.”   

Other vendors have also embedded analytical capabilities into their applications. It’s just that Microsoft software is so ubiquitous in the corporate environment it is the natural starting point for companies that want to use what they have.

Microsoft well understands that users rely on the BI analytics tools in its products, Narel said. In recent years, the company has enhanced the analytical capabilities of its applications.

For example, Excel has PowerPivot, which allows users to load data from different sources and perform quick calculations on a large volume of data, drilling into it for analysis. Microsoft SQL Server 2012 has a reporting add-in for interactive data visualization and ad hoc reporting. “There’s one data model and three different user experiences,” for senior executives, business analysts and information workers,  Narel said.

“Most manufacturers have already invested in the Microsoft stack,” she said. Using embedded BI functionality “lets them get more out of their existing IT investment without having to buy separate tools for BI.”

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