The Buzz about Business Intelligence

Posted on February 13th 2013

Buzz words.  The technology industry is full of them.  I recently received an email from a client asking about some buzz words as they relate to Business Intelligence (a buzz word all on its own).  Figuring others had similar questions, I thought I’d share my response to one of our Higher Education customers.

Actionable Analytics.  I see this term used in conjunction with web marketing efforts, but it mainly has to do with tracking metrics over which you have control.  It’s easy to go crazy with BI tools and start analyzing stuff that has no real meaning, but makes some pretty awesome graphs.  Actionable analytics simply means that you want to chart and track things that you can affect.  This has more to do with the content of a dashboard than with the tool being used.

More importantly, you want to make sure you have the most current data available in order to make those important decisions.  Traditional BI solutions rely on warehoused data, which could be days, weeks, or even months old.  That’s okay for looking at historical information, but if you need more current data, you need a solution, like Informer, that can get to the data in real-time (or near-real-time).

Business Intelligence.  You can ask a million people what this means, and you’ll probably get a million different answers.  It’s a very broad term that is used quite often to simply mean drawing intelligent information out of your data and using it to make business decisions.  OK, so you have a bunch of reports that list things about students, classes, budgets, etc.  But digging further into the data you can start to notice trends that identify situations which warrant further investigation.  You may notice that your spring enrollment numbers are slipping slightly, or that Thursday classes are very popular and you need to add additional sections.  Again, this is more of a concept than anything to do with a specific tool.  The tool simply allows you to draw the information out of your data.

For example, you may have a chart showing enrollment for the past 5 spring terms which might show you a downward (or better yet, an upward) trend.  Or you can have a trend chart that shows the number of students in classes on each day of the week.  Informer Dashboards can certainly be used to do all these things.  The key here is how easy the tool is to setup and maintain, as well as how current the data needs to be.

Business & Predictive Analytics.  This is simply looking at past performance to determine how you need to proceed in the future.  The tools used here can vary from simple analytical charts to extensive software packages such as SAS that do predictive analytics (using past data to predict the future).  While the latter sounds wonderful, it comes at quite a steep price, both from dollars and resources.  The question to ask is how necessary is it to your organization, and how much value you place in the validity of the prediction.  A lot of institutions are looking into predictive analytics to improve student retention and success.  Informer doesn’t try to get into the predictive arena, as that is a science all to itself.  However, it can do other analytics using the charts and graphs provided.

Comparison Reporting.  Informer has the ability to do comparison reporting.  It may require some script columns to put data into the appropriate column on the report.  Or, if you have annual data stored in separate files or tables for each period, mapping suites can be used to pull that data from multiple periods onto a single report so you can, for example, do a year-to-year comparison.  The one thing to keep in mind is that the report is only as accurate as the data.  Some databases do not lend themselves well to point-in-time data.  It can be very difficult or almost impossible to pull, say, enrollment data from this time last semester or last year.  This is where report archives come in handy.  Dashboards allow you to use them as providers of data so you can analyze data over time.  Or, a more involved solution would require a data warehouse of some kind, which come with a high sticker and resource price, but may be necessary to do the type of analysis you need.

Comparing Data to Goals.  This would be something like a budget analysis report where you analyze the allocated budget to actuals to see how well you’re doing.  That’s provided in the database.  What isn’t provided is a place to put goals like enrollment.  You have to build those into the visualizations on the dashboard.

Gauges, for example, allow you to set the color ranges for red (Danger Will Robinson!), yellow (I need to keep an eye on this) and green (woohoo! We made it!).  So I might set one end of the green range to my enrollment goal.  Again, this isn’t so much specific to the tool as it is a concept.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, these terms (with the exception of predictive analytics) are well covered by Informer dashboards.  Entrinsik is certainly not out to compete head-to-head with the big BI solutions like SAS™ or Business Objects™.  Those tools have their place, as does Informer.  I typically explain it like wanting to put a nail into the wall to hang a picture, or needing to knock down a block wall.   I’m certainly not going to use the same tool for both, even though I have both in my toolbox.  It’s all about using the right tool for the right job.

The biggest challenge to developing a dashboard is identifying and displaying useful information, and relying on the end users to extrapolate business decisions from that information.  I think too many institutions think they need a sledgehammer to drive the nail in the wall for a picture.  Ultimately, the users need to be able to easily and quickly access their data, analyze it, and draw useful information from it.

Informer provides that by allowing you to get to your data real-time and analyze it without the need for expensive hardware and software.  And we can also help your users understand what they need through our business consulting services.

If you would like more information on how Entrinsik can help you decipher your dashboard needs, please contact us at

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