Who Benefits from Business Intelligence

The core concept behind the business intelligence proposition is that data is liberated from the information silos where it’s trapped and instead present in a snazzy interface to a companies top execs, allowing them to achieve a dynamic understanding of the company’s business processes. With the greater access to information, the argument goes, the execs should be able to respond more effectively to commercial opportunities and see problems coming and head them off before they begin to have a detrimental effect on the bottom line. The paradigm is essentially one of increasing top management’s insight into the business. But are top executives the only ones who can benefit from this higher-definition view of the company’s processes?


Business Intelligence

Some companies who have bought into the new business intelligence concept are finding that, on the contrary, employees at many levels are benefiting from the new information systems. The goal of business intelligence, ultimately, is to inform decision-making; to lead to better decisions. When we think of decision makers we tend to think of executives. But, in reality, almost every employee is a decision-maker in some way. And what some companies, who have rolled out business intelligence insights expansively throughout their employee hierarchies, have found is that even non-supervisory staff at the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder can have their behaviour changed for the better simply by having access to information.

Trickling down business intelligence throughout the corporate hierarchy can be a culture shock for many companies. Two problems are commonly noted. First, the sheer amount of data can be bewildering to some employees who are not used to processing it. As a result, they may prefer to simply ignore the data rather than make an effort to sift through it and extract something useful. One solution is a “role-based” distribution of BI, under which employees receive different sets of data specifically tailored to their status and responsibilities within the company.

Another cultural issue that arises through the wider dissemination of BI is that some workers feel disempowered because they previously regarded themselves as “owners” of data that is now readily accessible to everyone. Encouraging them to see this as a burden lifted from their shoulders can help reconcile them to this new status quo.

Having performance metrics easily viewable by everyone can also create problems. Individual workers whose performance is struggling may now have their predicament painfully obvious to all of their colleagues, whereas previously it would have been a private matter been the worker and his or her manager. In some settings, for example a sales team, the tension this induces may be regarded as healthy or even productive; in other cases, where a culture of fierce personal competitiveness is not the norm, it may be stressful and demoralising.

The Maine Medical Centre implemented a pervasive Business Intelligence concept in partnership with SAS. All hospital employees were able to track the movement of dozens of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which were the metrics judged to be most important for the efficient running of the hospital, both from a cost and patient care point of view. Management found that simply by being exposed to the information, workers altered their behaviour. They prioritised certain things rather than others. Once the BI system began tracking the number of patient falls, they became less frequent. The mere fact of recognising that certain things are being monitored appears to influence employee behaviour.

And it’s not just employees who can benefit from new insight into the business operations. Some companies are even going beyond that and bringing partner companies into the fold or, conversely, asking to be allowed access to another company’s BI so that the relationship can become mutually more profitable.

For example, if you’re a supplier and have a client who’s worried about your ability to fulfil his order in a timely fashion, letting him have access to your own BI system, where he can literally see the products roll off the assembly line can help give him peace of mind.

Getting access to your client’s systems can also be beneficial. To take the example of a retail client, if you can monitor their inventory and sales levels, your sales staff can know when the right time to put in a call is. Of course, such relationships require a substantial amount of trust on both sides and this can usually only be built up after a prolonged period of working together.

For some companies, it may even be appropriate to bring their customers into the BI data fold. Think of delivery firms, for example. Letting customers track the progress of their packages over the internet may increase customer satisfaction and minimise calls to support staff.

Surveys show that Business Intelligence continues to be a top priority for company executives. Rolling it out more broadly than the executive boardroom, however, appears to make sense and, once companies grasp its potential, is likely to become more common in the years ahead.