Business Intelligence & Data Warehousing in a Business Perspective

 


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Business Intelligence

Business Intelligence has become a very important activity in the business arena irrespective of the domain due to the fact that managers need to analyze comprehensively in order to face the challenges.

Data sourcing, data analysing, extracting the correct information for a given criteria, assessing the risks and finally supporting the decision making process are the main components of BI.

In a business perspective, core stakeholders need to be well aware of all the above stages and be crystal clear on expectations. The person, who is being assigned with the role of Business Analyst (BA) for the BI initiative either from the BI solution providers’ side or the company itself, needs to take the full responsibility on assuring that all the above steps are correctly being carried out, in a way that it would ultimately give the business the expected leverage. The management, who will be the users of the BI solution, and the business stakeholders, need to communicate with the BA correctly and elaborately on their expectations and help him throughout the process.

Data sourcing is an initial yet crucial step that would have a direct impact on the system where extracting information from multiple sources of data has to be carried out. The data may be on text documents such as memos, reports, email messages, and it may be on the formats such as photographs, images, sounds, and they can be on more computer oriented sources like databases, formatted tables, web pages and URL lists. The key to data sourcing is to obtain the information in electronic form. Therefore, typically scanners, digital cameras, database queries, web searches, computer file access etc, would play significant roles. In a business perspective, emphasis should be placed on the identification of the correct relevant data sources, the granularity of the data to be extracted, possibility of data being extracted from identified sources and the confirmation that only correct and accurate data is extracted and passed on to the data analysis stage of the BI process. Business oriented stake holders guided by the BA need to put in lot of thought during the analyzing stage as well, which is the second phase. Synthesizing useful knowledge from collections of data should be done in an analytical way using the in-depth business knowledge whilst estimating current trends, integrating and summarizing disparate information, validating models of understanding, and predicting missing information or future trends. This process of data analysis is also called data mining or knowledge discovery. Probability theory, statistical analysis methods, operational research and artificial intelligence are the tools to be used within this stage. It is not expected that business oriented stake holders (including the BA) are experts of all the above theoretical concepts and application methodologies, but they need to be able to guide the relevant resources in order to achieve the ultimate expectations of BI, which they know best.

Identifying relevant criteria, conditions and parameters of report generation is solely based on business requirements, which need to be well communicated by the users and correctly captured by the BA. Ultimately, correct decision support will be facilitated through the BI initiative and it aims to provide warnings on important events, such as takeovers, market changes, and poor staff performance, so that preventative steps could be taken. It seeks to help analyze and make better business decisions, to improve sales or customer satisfaction or staff morale. It presents the information that manager’s need, as and when they need it.

In a business sense, BI should go several steps forward bypassing the mere conventional reporting, which should explain “what has happened?” through baseline metrics. The value addition will be higher if it can produce descriptive metrics, which will explain “why has it happened?” and the value added to the business will be much higher if predictive metrics could be provided to explain “what will happen?” Therefore, when providing a BI solution, it is important to think in these additional value adding lines.

Data warehousing

In the context of BI, data warehousing (DW) is also a critical resource to be implemented to maximize the effectiveness of the BI process. BI and DW are two terminologies that go in line. It has come to a level where a true BI system is ineffective without a powerful DW, in order to understand the reality behind this statement, it’s important to have an insight in to what DW really is.

A data warehouse is one large data store for the business in concern which has integrated, time variant, non volatile collection of data in support of management's decision making process. It will mainly have transactional data which would facilitate effective querying, analyzing and report generation, which in turn would give the management the required level of information for the decision making.

The reasons to have BI together with DW

At this point, it should be made clear why a BI tool is more effective with a powerful DW. To query, analyze and generate worthy reports, the systems should have information available. Importantly, transactional information such as sales data, human resources data etc. are available normally in different applications of the enterprise, which would obviously be physically held in different databases. Therefore, data is not at one particular place, hence making it very difficult to generate intelligent information. The level of reports expected today, are not merely independent for each department, but managers today want to analyze data and relationships across the enterprise so that their BI process is effective. Therefore, having data coming from all the sources to one location in the form of a data warehouse is crucial for the success of the BI initiative. In a business viewpoint, this message should be passed and sold to the managements of enterprises so that they understand the value of the investment. Once invested, its gains could be achieved over several years, in turn marking a high ROI.

Investment costs for a DW in the short term may look quite high, but it’s important to re-iterate that the gains are much higher and it will span over many years to come. It also reduces future development cost since with the DW any requested report or view could be easily facilitated. However, it is important to find the right business sponsor for the project. He or she needs to communicate regularly with executives to ensure that they understand the value of what's being built. Business sponsors need to be decisive, take an enterprise-wide perspective and have the authority to enforce their decisions.

Process

Implementation of a DW itself overlaps with some phases of the above explained BI process and it’s important to note that in a process standpoint, DW falls in to the first few phases of the entire BI initiative. Gaining highly valuable information out of DW is the latter part of the BI process. This can be done in many ways. DW can be used as the data repository of application servers that run decision support systems, management Information Systems, Expert systems etc. , through them, intelligent information could be achieved. But one of the latest strategies is to build cubes out of the DW and allow users to analyze data in multiple dimensions, and also provide with powerful analytical supporting such as drill down information in to granular levels. Cube is a concept that is different to the traditional relational 2-dimensional tabular view, and it has multiple dimensions, allowing a manager to analyze data based on multiple factors, and not just two factors. On the other hand, it allows the user to select whatever the dimension he wish to choose for analyzing purposes and not be limited by one fixed view of data, which is called as slice & dice in DW terminology.

BI for a serious enterprise is not just a phase of a computerization process, but it is one of the major strategies behind the entire organizational drivers. Therefore management should sit down and build up a BI strategy for the company and identify the information they require in each business direction within the enterprise. Given this, BA needs to analyze the organizational data sources in order to build up the most effective DW which would help the strategized BI process.

High level Ideas on Implementation

At the heart of the data warehousing process is the extract, transform, and load (ETL) process. Implementation of this merely is a technical concern but it’s a business concern to make sure it is designed in such a way that it ultimately helps to satisfy the business requirements. This process is responsible for connecting to and extracting data from one or more transactional systems (source systems), transforming it according to the business rules defined through the business objectives, and loading it into the all important data model. It is at this point where data quality should be gained. Of the many responsibilities of the data warehouse, the ETL process represents a significant portion of all the moving parts of the warehousing process.

Creation of a powerful DW depends on the correctness of data modeling, which is the responsibility of the database architect of the project, but BA needs to play a pivotal role providing him with correct data sources, data requirements and most importantly business dimensions. Business Dimensional modeling is a special method used for DW projects and this normally should be carried out by the BA and from there onwards technical experts should take up the work. Dimensions are perspectives specific to a business that could be used for analysis purposes. As an example, for a sales database, the dimensions could include Product, Time, Store, etc. Obviously these dimensions differ from one business to another and hence for each DW initiative those dimensions should be correctly identified and that could be very well done by a person who has experience in the DW domain and understands the business as well, making it apparent that DW BA is the person responsible.

Each of the identified dimensions would be turned in to a dimension table at the implementation phase, and the objective of the above explained ETL process is to fill up these dimension tables, which in turn will be taken to the level of the DW after performing some more database activities based on a strong underlying data model. Implementation details are not important for a business stakeholder but being aware of high level process to this level is important so that they are also on the same pitch as that of the developers and can confirm that developers are actually doing what they are supposed to do and would ultimately deliver what they are supposed to deliver.

Security is also vital in this regard, since this entire effort deals with highly sensitive information and identification of access right to specific people to specific information should be correctly identified and captured at the requirements analysis stage.

Advantages

There are so many advantages of BI system. More presentation of analytics directly to the customer or supply chain partner will be possible. Customer scores, customer campaigns and new product bundles can all be produced from analytic structures resulting in high customer retention and creation of unique products. More collaboration within information can be achieved from effective BI. Rather than middle managers getting great reports and making their own areas look good, information will be conveyed into other functions and rapidly shared to create collaborative decisions increasing the efficiency and accuracy. The return on human capital will be greatly increased.

Managers at all levels will save their time on data analysis, and hence saving money for the enterprise, as the time of managers is equal to money in a financial perspective. Since powerful BI would enable monitoring internal processes of the enterprises more closely and allow making them more efficient, the overall success of the organization would automatically grow. All these would help to derive a high ROI on BI together with a strong DW. It is a common experience to notice very high ROI figures on such implementations, and it is also important to note that there are many non-measurable gains whilst we consider most of the measurable gains for the ROI calculation. However, at a stage where it is intended to take the management buy-in for the BI initiative, it’s important to convert all the non measurable gains in to monitory values as much as possible, for example, saving of managers time can be converted in to a monitory value using his compensation.

The author has knowledge in both Business and IT. Started career as a Software Engineer and moved to work in the business analysis area of a premier US based software company.

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