The Greatest Defensive Move You Can Make for 2013

Indicators point to a global economic slowdown and possibly another recession in 2013 and 2014. Europe’s debt crisis and the US “fiscal cliff” are major influencers and economic growth expectations are lowering considerably for the upcoming quarters.  And then there is the election.

Given the economic indicators and the increasing feeling of uncertainty, investments in cloud computing and application portfolio rationalization are attractive strategies to lower the overall future cost base.  Investments in cloud-based solutions can reduce the overhead of corporate applications by providing a usage-based cost structure.  Application portfolio rationalization efforts can reduce redundancy and inefficiency while realigning technology with the business.

Projects like these are most effective when cost relief is delivered as cost pressures mount in 2013 and before they become critical in 2014.  Cloud re-platforming and application portfolio rationalization can be longer-term plays, and the trick is to have the vision to get these projects started in time to finish when it matters.  Digging your well before you are thirsty is certainly a well-recognized leadership strategy and the best time to capitalize is when you are still riding high.

Increase the health of your organization by evaluating options to better manage resources used by existing applications to do more with less.  This was a critical success factor in 2009 as businesses tried to persevere.  It will likely separate the good IT leaders from the great during the next downturn.  It could be hyperbole to call it the greatest defensive move you can make, but this defensive strategy can create an attractive  balance of technology vision with market sensibilities.  Do you sense the decelerating growth in sales or margins?  What are you doing in Q4 and Q1 to help prepare yourself  to weather the storm?

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“Where” is Your Decision Making Taking You

with guest contributor Ryan Roark

Business occurs in a specific place.  Your transactions have many potential geographic elements to them.  Answering the “where” question might be the lowest hanging fruit of your BI implementation.  It is probably the area where the greatest value can be gained with the lowest additional investment.  Existing tools make this mapping quite easy and odds are that the data you need already exists in your data warehouse.  This post provides an overview of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools in the market, providing a starting point to start answering the “where” question.

GIS provides geographic intelligence via a variety of analysis techniques and views, typically displayed on a map.  There are a number of tools and platforms in the market today that can help you manage your geographic data.  Knowing the tools that exist, and what they do, will help you uncover new insights.  The tools range from free and simple to licensed and robust.  This is not an exhaustive list, but should introduce you to some of the tools and get you started.

Google

The creators of some of the most common mapping tools (e.g. Google Maps, Google Earth) have also built tools that allow you to analyze your data against their maps.

Google Fusion Tables

Google Fusion Tables (GFT) is a beta feature of Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) and is free to use.  Users can upload their data directly to Google’s servers (250MB per user) and manipulate it in their browser.   Real time data filters, aggregates, and merging with other Fusion Tables are all functions that will help you manage your data set.

You can view your data on a map and the location data will be automatically geo-coded and plotted.  GFT also supports KML shapes that draw as polygons on your map.  GFT, while it is still in beta, provides a lot of easy to use functionality and Google is still making improvements (e.g. Gradient Heat Maps still has room to improve).

Google Earth

With Google Earth (GE), you can use 3rd party tools to generate a KML file that GE can visualize in a 3D environment.   In this example, GE-Graph was used to generate 3D shapes in GE.  While your mileage may vary with intelligence gained, this tool certainly has some “curb appeal.”

QlikView

QlikView is a popular Business Intelligence solution provided by QlikTech and their mapping capabilities are extended by Analytics8 with QlikMaps.  QlikMaps is the glue that binds Google Maps and QlikView together.  QlikMaps also provides additional analysis tools on top of Google Maps that aren’t possible in tools like GFT (e.g. Radar Charts).  Along with all the advanced data analysis tools provided by QlikView, this tool set is a more powerful option for managing your locational-aware data.  A demo of what QlikMaps provides can be found here.

MapInfo Professional

Developed by Pitney Bowes, MapInfo is a standalone package that provides GIS analysis on Windows-based computers.  The tool integrates with SAP Crystal Reports, but to really interact with the data you will need a copy of the software – there is no browser-based interface or mobile client.  This is not a free tool (30-day trial available), but packs a lot of features into their application – most everything mentioned above.  Take a look at its feature list here or watch a demo of its features here.

QuantumGIS (QGIS)

QGIS is a cross-platform, open source GIS application that has increased functionality above the tools we have listed above, which could create a steeper learning curve.  It supports 3rd party plugins and has an extensive list of features.  For a complete list of features, check their Features Page.

QGIS competes as the open source alternative to the next product, ESRI’s ArcGIS.

ESRI

Arguably the largest player in the GIS market, ESRI develops and licenses GIS software suites.

ArcGIS

ArcGIS is a GIS suite developed by ESRI and is the most mature tool on this list.  This software does more than any of the tools we’ve discussed so far (and probably more than any tool on the market), but the learning curve is also steeper as a result.  ArcGIS also comes with a price tag but a 30-day trial is also available.  The available functionality of this tool is the most comprehensive we’ve seen on the market.  ESRI has also integrated their solution into many non-GIS tools like SharePoint, mobile phones and tablets, and AutoCAD.

Alteryx

Dedicated to Business Intelligence, Alteryx has created tools for analyzing data and making informed decisions.  They offer a few products and they are also partnered with number of companies that can provide additional data (including geospatial data) to help analyze your market.

Designer’s Desktop

Designer’s Desktop is one of Alteryx’s main offerings, a desktop application for analyzing data that leverages drag-and-drop modules that can be connected to one another, effectively keeping users out of code.  While some of the functionality is focused on BI tasks like ETL, there is also a spatial component with support for the most common file types (e.g. Shape files and KML files) in the GIS field.  Even if you don’t use Alteryx for data analysis, you can easily plug-in exported files or connect to an external database to access your data.

Designer’s Desktop is one of the most mature products on this list.  The learning curve on this product is slightly steeper than average despite its drag-and-drop nature, but they offer a 30-day trial to allow you to get comfortable.  With geospatial tightly integrated into the product its clear this is not just a BI tool and legitimate geospatial option.

Where To Go From Here

While this is not a comprehensive list of GIS tools and utilities that exist today, it should serve as a starter’s guide for some of the GIS players in the market.  Try out some of the tools with your data.  Browse the websites of the listed products to understand all the functionality they can provide.  Share your success stories.  A picture is worth a thousand words.

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The Corporate Risk Most Companies are Turning a Blind Eye Toward

How dependent is your business on a labyrinth of free-form, linked spreadsheets that massage and transform your enterprise data?  Do you know where that data resides  after it has been adjusted and augmented by these spreadsheets?  Are you managing this gray market of data?

Spreadsheets are the ultimate quick prototyping tool.  They enable unprecedented flexibility in model building, testing and learning (aka trial and error or what-if analysis), and light automation with features like Record Macro.  Spreadsheets also provide useful data exploration and data visualization, and are most often unconstrained and fluid.

Who’s in Control of Data?

Most organizations are in the process of maturing their enterprise data warehouse (and the enterprise data integration to support it), but IT maintains control of enterprise data. This can create significant organization friction in the gap between business information needs and IT delivery of data.  In instances where the business’s appetite for information is underserved by IT, the spreadsheet is the most common workaround and leads to the gray market of data.  It can be more efficient for analysts to simply “do it themselves” in Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access with whatever data they can copy and paste from enterprise systems.

But the spreadsheet’s strength is also its downfall as a production application.  Resulting data in spreadsheets most often becomes a local silo of information, tucked away on desktops, network file shares, thumb drives, and attached to emails.    That data is not an enterprise asset.  Furthermore, the same spreadsheet model likely exists in many places, with changeable data, and probably with varying model versions.  Multiple versions of the truth, anyone?

A Web of Dependent Decision-Making Objects

Compounding the problem, these spreadsheets are often connected to each other, creating a web of dependent decision-making objects.  And how often does a prototype model from Finance or Operations become a de facto production-like application?  Analysts in Finance or Operations who are charged with answering questions from the corner office will serve themselves if supply is insufficient.  Business needs will not go unmet.  However, these analysts are certainly not thinking about backing up the model, security, consistency through using validation for values, application variables, protected formulas, etc.

Obviously, shutting down all rogue spreadsheet production-like applications is not the answer.  You are open for business and you have to keep the lights on.  But you can start to corral the sprawl with an architectural option that keeps everyone happy.

A Solution That Works For All

Use the spreadsheet as a front-end user interface, but keep the data in an enterprise-class data warehouse for centralized storage.  Use Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) to facilitate the ODBC database connection.

From there, you can back up the data, share the data across the enterprise, improve data governance, and more.  You can easily build a custom Excel ribbon and create a VSTO “enabled document,” where the custom menu appears for that spreadsheet document only.  Once the spreadsheet model is ready to be hardened, you can store the latest version on the intranet to manage version control.  You balance enterprise data risk while ensuring line-of-business personnel can create dynamic and flexible models, in a way that can be governed by IT.

The technology world is changing.  How much can you trust your legacy business models in the new mobilized, digitized, virutalized, and globalized world?  Can you afford to not manage the enterprise risk from the gray market of data in your enterprise?

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Free the Flow of Data with Data Discovery Tools

Historically, the insistence that a business specify all of its data requirements in advance has been the most common downfall of data-related solutions.  There are various methodologies that lessen that initial requirements burden and facilitate more consistent and productive feedback loops, yet there is an emerging architecture within Business Intelligence (BI) that can additionally increase overall solution success.

Overcome the Fear

Quick prototyping tools for data discovery have shifted the power of raw data from IT to the business.  While this may sound like a terrible idea, rife of splintered information silos and risky from the standpoint of data cleanliness, uniform business rules, and security, this approach can be quite useful for IT.  The business can use data discovery tools to prototype its solutions, which is far more productive and tangible than a requirements session.

Limiting the business’ access to data can create a gray market of data.  Why not embrace this shift and realize that data is the true business asset, not the BI infrastructure, reports, dashboards, or ETL (or Extract Transform and Load routines)?  IT can always revisit and harden the prototype once an analysis pattern is identified and can be published.

Where to Start

To set the data free, there are some definitions that are useful.

Reports are typically supporting known decision support needs with known data.  Reports can have dynamic report filters, but with fixed column headers and row headers.  Reports typically serve field personnel and business analysts.  Key Performance Indicators (KPI) fit into this category where known targets will be applied to known data to support known decision needs.

Dashboards are a form of report where several known data are collected on a common palette with a common set of page filters, optimized for delivering quick information about action needed.  Dashboards address known decision support needs and can serve anyone in the organization from field personnel to executives.

Analytics, or ad-hoc analysis, is typically supporting unknown decision support needs with known data.  This is often referred to as slice-and-dice.   Analytic software typically serves power users, business analysts, and users with a high appetite for data and ability to use complex software.

Data discovery is typically supporting known and unknown decision support needs with unknown data.  Data discovery tools are best when the analysis requires fluidity.  These tools are often easier to use because many do not require Extract Transform and Load (ETL) routines.   Data discovery tools can replace other silos of data in spreadsheets and MS Access databases, to allow IT better control over corporate data.  Data discovery tools typically serve power users, business analysts, and users with a high appetite for data and ability to use complex software.

There are many extremely capable and visually appealing data discovery tools in the market.  Chances are there are data discovery tools from your current BI vendor.  Some of the players in this space are:

  • BusinessObjects Explorer from SAP
  • Cloud Personal from Microstrategy
  • Cognos Express from IBM
  • PowerPivot from Microsoft
  • Qlikview from QlikTech
  • Spotfire from Tibco Software
  • Tableau from Tableau Software
  • WebFocus Visual Discovery from Information Builders

Take a moment to consider what has caused stress in your BI implementations and what barriers exist to BI adoption for your BI layer of reports, dashboards, and KPIs.  A data discovery tool very well could be the next step in the evolution of serving the business with data, by setting the data free and allowing the business to build prototypes.

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