The business lessons we all learned running a lemonade stand as seven year olds stands the test of time. The math is simple: Income – Expenses = Profits (or Losses 🙁 ). For the lemonade stand, maximizing income was the tricky part. Eventually we figured out how much to charge, and where and when to set up. A dime in my day was the right amount; a nickel was too cheap, a quarter was too much, and who wanted to mess with making change? After some trial and error, the when and where became obvious too: in front of our house, on warm and sunny Saturdays. Just enough traffic to attack customers, but still easy to get people to park for a quick stop.
The expenses side was easy. Just hit Mom up after one of our many family picnics…nearly a whole box of cups left, and more than enough lemonade mix to make several batches of a not-quite-cool, sticky-sweet mixture resembling lemonade. We knew none of our customers really cared about the quality of the product.
As grownups, the stakes are much higher and the issues much more complicated, but the principles remain the same: finding that combination of Income and Expenses that maximizes profits over the long run. We don’t have time for trial-and-error to figure it out. We must rely on hard evidence – our institutional data.
The majority of institutions out there struggle to some degree to extract that “hard evidence” out of their institutional data.
Common barriers preventing organizations from getting to their data include:
- Existing reports may be too inflexible to get reliable data to answer tough questions.
- Individuals “customize” reporting with Excel spreadsheets on local drives or network shares not accessible to everyone who may need it.
- Various versions exist of reports, many outdated, yielding conflicting answers.
- Definitions of basic business terms vary across the company. “Inventory”, “Commissions”, “Budget”, and “Billable Hours” might mean different things to different people within the organization.
- There may be no easy way to make sense of data between two different systems. Your CRM system may know a customer by one name, but your accounting system by something entirely different.
What’s the solution for turning that institutional data into business insight?
A phased approach is almost always warranted. For the initial phase, review current reports. Find out what people NEED, and identify what is available and what isn’t. Prioritize, then work on building accurate and easy to use reports.
If you are not using Dashboards, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and automated report distribution, you are not maximizing your reporting environment.
Here at ADNET, we run Microsoft’s SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). It’s cost effective (effectively bundled into a SQL Server License), secure (using Windows Authentication Credentials), flexible (can use ANY ODBC data source, from SQL Server to DB2, Oracle and beyond), and powerful. It supports subscriptions, snapshots, and is easy to use to develop reports, charts and graphs, dashboards, and “Drill Through” data tables. It’s “SQL Data Tools” development environment is easy to learn for anyone with Microsoft Access or .NET development skills.
Once a company has a solid handle on their reporting environment, the next logical step is to build out a true “Business Intelligence” environment. It usually starts with a simple Data Mart, a “summary of key facts” (Sales, Inventory …) across various “dimensions” (time, geography, customer demographics, product type, even dimensions like size and color). The Data Mart allows compiling of “cubes”, which support the ability for people to drive their own data experience… with “what if…” conditions, letting users “slice” through the data by whatever criteria they want to.
Business Intelligence tools are exploding in the marketplace and getting better, faster, cheaper, and easier to use. We are particularly excited about Microsoft’s PowerBI and its ability to drive BI down to the smartphone, but that will have to be a topic for another blog.