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Tips to buckle down a midmarket business intelligence strategy

What steps do you need to take to develop a solid business intelligence strategy? Check out these tips on better BI user adoption, governance and creating a cohesive BI plan.

Business intelligence tools are evolving, giving more users (not just the business analysts) the power to gather and analyze important company data. But midmarket organizations need to prepare for the change.

Business intelligence tools are not just for the large enterprise -- a 2009 Forrester research survey showed that small and medium-sized businesses continued to spend on BI software, despite the economic downturn. However, fewer small to midsized organizations currently have a business intelligence strategy or tool in place (only about a third, according the survey).

For midsized organizations that may be new to company-wide BI, here's some of the latest news and tips aimed at helping CIOs formulate a business intelligence strategy:

Accept Excel as part of BI: Whether there are BI tools in place or not, Excel spreadsheets are being used in organizations both large and small to make sense of data. IT may not want to admit that users are skipping out on BI tools or even finding their own ways to harness data, but Gartner Inc. analyst John Hagerty advises that instead of fighting it, it's important for IT to accept it.

At the recent Gartner Business Intelligence Summit 2010, Hagerty said IT needs to acknowledge the use of Excel for some BI tasks. IT, he said, may have to give up some BI data control and accept that not all data used for reporting and analysis needs to be put into a data warehouse. Sometime the best way for the user to access and understand it, may be the spreadsheet.

Plan for BI governance: If IT isn't finding a way to empower business users when it comes to BI reporting and analysis, the users could end up circumventing the system, finding their own way with tools such as Microsoft's PowerPivot.

PowerPivot is free for all Outlook users and due in May. It will give users the ability to download 100 million rows of data to their desktops from a variety of data sources, perform a number of complex queries and create their own BI applications to be shared with colleagues. But without proper use policies and governance, this advancement for everyday users is cringe-worthy for IT.

Creating a documented BI strategy should be the first step toward a cohesive plan. Building a relationship between the business and IT can help get the BI strategy conversation started and foster strategic alignment.

User adoption is still a struggle: Understanding the types of business users who will be utilizing the data -- their needs, expectations and requirements -- is also crucial for BI strategy success. Organizations that don't spend time acknowledging multiple groups of business users suffer poor user adoption down the line, according to Boris Evelson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

CIOs and the IT department will need to spend time evangelizing the use of BI. The means marketing it to users, phasing in the use of BI and possibly adding tools that are more visually appealing, said Gartner analyst James Richardson.

Software as a Service BI is bulking up, but it isn't a fit for all: SaaS BI technology is improving, and vendor offerings aren't as skimpy as they once were, which could make them a good option for some organizations. While easy-to-use interfaces and subscription-based pricing of these BI offerings in the cloud do provide some benefits, is it enough to skip the on-premise options? Drawbacks such as security and product maturity are still preventing some users from moving forward, so evaluating the product against your specific needs is key.

Where are you in your BI strategy? Email

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