Businesses thrive when executives and managers have timely access to the information they need. But, says idu Managing Director Kevin Phillips, that doesn’t mean everyone needs the same tools.
“Business intelligence (BI) tools can be incredibly powerful,” says Phillips. “They offer great richness and depth of information to senior decision makers. But they are not for everyone: At lower levels of the organisation, full-strength BI is overkill. The systems are expensive, and the information they deliver may be too complex for the cost centre manager who just needs to know a few key metrics.”
But static reports aren’t always the right tools for the job either, says Phillips. “For many companies, the only alternative to BI is to give managers reports directly from the ERP system, either in print or in PDF or spreadsheet format. ERP reports tend not to give enough detail, or to offer information in a format that’s hard to make sense of.”
Spreadsheets introduce a whole range of new problems, adds Phillips, especially once people start doing their own calculations. “You very quickly get to a point where everybody is working on a different interpretation of the facts.”
Business should be looking for the best of both worlds, he says. “That means a web-based solution: You don’t want to have to be installing stuff on multiple PCs and shipping data cubes or pivot tables. You want to allow people to look at and analyse information that’s relevant to them, from a limited range of predefined, useful views on the data.”
It’s important to note, says Phillips, that what should be limited is views on the data, not the amount of detail available. “People should be able to drill down all the way to individual transactions if they need to, in just a few clicks,” he says. “This provides enough information for effective management, but avoids creating confusion or the analysis paralysis that can flow from having too much irrelevant information.”
Typical managers, he suggests, would benefit most from tools that allow them easily to compare their budgeted vs their actual spending, and their commitments against their budgets. “Managers can only really be effective if they have access to this kind of financial information in real time, not four weeks after the fact in a printed report.”
Information flows should also be two-way, he says. “Companies should look for tools that allow managers to comment on and explain the data. Apart from making information more transparent and easily available to everyone, it means potential problems can be flagged early on. It also saves accountants a lot of time and trouble if they don’t have to phone around asking for explanations. Accountants are expensive staff – they should be spending their time analysing the numbers, not compiling them. “