Business Intelligence: Build BI solutions

There may be powerful business intelligence tools hiding in your IT stack. The Microsoft BI Solution Builder can help you find them.

Mike Thomsen

Many analysts and industry observers describe data as “the new oil.” Others posit that every company is sitting on its own gold mine of data, but is ill-equipped to extract it with the tools they currently have.

Data is now comparable to other forms of the world’s great riches. In the same vein, however, finding and extracting value from data resources can be a painstaking task. Whether drilling, mining or accessing new data sources, the right tools are essential to success. What if your company already owns powerful tools and doesn’t even realize it?

When looking to extract data and refine it into insightful and actionable information, companies often spend a considerable amount of money on large, complex business intelligence (BI) applications. Unfortunately, companies often layer these applications on top of or alongside other tools already in use. This results in people avoiding the BI apps and resorting to the tools with which they’re most familiar. Such proprietary, application-heavy practices can burden IT. At the same time, they pressure end users to adopt the new platform.

The reality is that companies are increasingly implementing multifaceted BI strategies with a variety of products and technologies. Forrester Research Inc. analyst Boris Evelson recently declared in his blog that “a ‘multiple BI tool’ strategy is here to stay for the foreseeable future.” However, more products often lead to more confusion when it comes to compatibility, integration and user adoption.

Before spending a ton of money on a new BI application, or beginning to deploy a myriad of new point solutions, it’s a good idea to take a look under the hood and see which BI capabilities are already present in your current IT stack. Many of those products are likely already in use—and preferred—by your users. This is where the new Microsoft BI Solution Builder can help.

Build better BI

Microsoft sells BI tools in three product groups—Excel, SharePoint and SQL. Each has its own analytics and collaboration features. With Excel 2013, businesses can employ self-service BI to combine and visualize data sets in new ways. Among the many SharePoint BI capabilities is the ability to generate dashboards and scorecards for business performance and instant insight into what content users are publishing. Microsoft SQL Server 2012 spans everything from data mining to data warehousing to scalable integration with other enterprise data sources for advanced analysis and reporting.

However, your business or your business partners may not run the latest versions of these titles. Therefore, the first challenge is to figure out what BI capabilities you already have within these three product groups. This leads to a “present state” BI assessment—a foundation upon which to build a more holistic solution.

Interestingly, many businesses are unaware of just how much BI capability their current solutions can provide. The situation is related, in a way, to users of Microsoft Office who never get below the levels of basic functionality. It’s like buying an iceberg worth of capabilities and only focusing on what you can see on the surface. 

Your organization may be severely underutilizing the power and breadth of capabilities already in your possession. The Microsoft BI Solution Builder lets you enter your unique mix of products, versions and editions. Then you can immediately see which BI capabilities are already present in what you’re already running.

Even after discovering the BI capability present in your existing assets, you may desire some additional BI capabilities that you don’t have. The Microsoft BI Solution Builder lets you choose the BI features you want. Then it will indicate whether those features are already present or require an upgrade to a newer product.

For example, you might know your company will need the ability to quickly compile and analyze millions of spreadsheet rows from disparate data sources. That feat may currently lie beyond your company’s existing applications. The question then becomes how to get from present to future in a way that carries a low impact on the organization but yields a high BI return.

To help close this gap, the Microsoft BI Solution Builder provides “Better” and “Best” upgrade scenarios to help you select and secure the right products with the right features. In this example, that means Excel 2013 Professional Plus with its PowerPivot in-memory analytics capabilities and Power View visualizations.

A simple process

The Microsoft BI Solution Builder is designed to serve two specific purposes: to educate you about your current Microsoft BI capabilities; to deliver a customized list of resources and recommended upgrade paths based on information you enter into the tool. Ideally, you should be able to immediately identify opportunities to deploy your existing Microsoft solutions in a new way to bring more BI capabilities to life.

That in itself is a step toward improving your “current state” of Microsoft BI deployment, but it’s just one part of the process. The final customer report lets you read datasheets and case studies, download trials, research white papers and learn more about what could be possible with upgraded technology.

The Microsoft BI Solution Builder experience begins with you entering information about your company name, role, level, industry, location and so on. This is an essential step, but it’s important to note the tool doesn’t require any personally identifiable information, such as name, address or e-mail. The intent of this data-collection stage is to create a customer report that’s uniquely tailored to your company.

It also helps Microsoft better understand usage patterns, such as which countries or industries are using the tool most often. The Microsoft BI Solution Builder also collects information on BI use cases, appliance preference and existing BI applications. This serves to more efficiently and accurately customize the customer report at the end of the process.

Next, the Microsoft BI Solution Builder guides you through the process of selecting which applications you currently own, including version (2010, 2013) and edition (Enterprise, Standard). Because there are BI capabilities in more than just Excel, SQL Server and SharePoint, the tool also includes fields for Visio, Visual Studio, Office 365 and Windows Azure. A convenient matrix quickly shows the BI capabilities for the selected products. You can hover over the matrix to get more information about a specific feature.

You’ll be prompted to enter which BI capabilities you’re looking for, such as predictive analytics, self-service BI, big data/Hadoop integration or data warehousing. The matrix provides a quick look at what’s possible and what’s needed to flesh out the solution. You can also export this to your final report (see Figure 1).

The Microsoft BI Solution Builder matrix shows you which solutions offer which capabilities.

Figure 1 The Microsoft BI Solution Builder matrix shows you which solutions offer which capabilities.

Once you have the matrix populated with existing product information and preferred capabilities, click on View Report, and you’ll be taken to a comprehensive report page. This report provides upgrade path recommendations, detailed resources (customized by user-entered data) and links to next steps such as product trial downloads.

The fact that the report is tailored to your company makes the resources more relevant and easier to research. For instance, if you indicate you use BI to monitor manufacturing processes, you’ll get case studies, white papers and articles about how better analytics can improve supply chain visibility and expedite root-cause analysis.

Think outside the tool

Despite its valuable information, guidance and resources, the Microsoft BI Solution Builder is still delivered as a Web-based experience. This can make using it easy, but what about when you need to close the browser or want to share the insights with your manager? What if you want to do a live chat with someone about a question, or want Microsoft to contact you about what you’ve learned in the tool?

The Microsoft BI Solution Builder has that covered. You can export the entire report to PowerPoint, so the capabilities matrix, upgrade paths and resource links are all preserved. You can also click a Chat Now icon to interact with a Microsoft support representative, or select the Have a Microsoft Representative Contact Me button to send an e-mail to Microsoft with questions.

With line-of-sight into new BI capabilities from existing Microsoft products, you and your organization will be able to retool or expand your BI practices and increase user adoption at the same time. With the Microsoft BI Solution Builder, you’ll be able to tap into that “oil field” of data, and extract and refine that data into meaningful business insights using solutions with which you’re already familiar.

Mike Thomsen

Mike Thomsen* is the senior product marketing manager of business analytics for Microsoft. He has been with Microsoft since 2006. He’s responsible for driving marketing programs for business intelligence (BI), big data, and data warehousing in the United States, as well as Microsoft’s BI events strategy, experiential marketing engines, partner integration, sales execution and readiness, and executive engagement activities. He has an MBA in marketing and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Prior to working at Microsoft, Thomsen spent seven years at Computer Associates as a national partner account manager and strategic account executive.*