For mid-sized organizations that are considering implementing new BI tools or a new BA methodology, investigating Cognos Express might be a good place to start.
Business analysts tell us that business strategy is about discovering how a business can perform better than its competition. They usually point to five interlocking elements: business direction, market scope, resource management, business environment, and potential business advantage.
Of course, over time every business builds an understanding of one or more of these basic strategic elements. But over the past 15 years, the most successful companies have been using something called business analytics (BA) to help them achieve their strategic business goals.
What Is Business Analytics?
A management definition of business analytics might be "applying the skills, technologies, applications, and practices for a continuous, iterative investigation and exploration of past business performance, with the goal of gaining insight to drive business planning." BA couples the data of day-to-day business transactions with statistical methods to achieve measurable goals that will align to business objectives.
But isn't this the same as business intelligence (BI)?
BA vs. BI
Over the years, we've heard a lot about BI; it traditionally focuses on using a consistent set of metrics to both measure past performance and guide business planning, which is also based on data and statistical methods. As IT professionals, we're often asked to build data warehouses so that management can use different BI tools to dig out pertinent details.
So what's the difference between BA and BI? In a nutshell, BA is about the management process of analyzing information to make new decisions, while BI is more about the technical methods to achieve a certain level of understanding about what has already happened in the past. In common parlance, BA uses BI to enable management to achieve its strategic business goals.
If the differences in these definitions seem overly nuanced, it's probably because the applied business science of BA was developed within large enterprise-level organizations, where embedded silos of expertise compete against one another for resources and where the mega-corporations that own these silos are competing against other, similar mega corporations. The focus of BA in these enterprise-level organizations is to develop the means of driving the business from the top down, from decision-makers to business units, across corporate divisions, all using consistently defined metrics that are developed through long corporate-management processes.
To a mid-sized corporation, however, the differences between the definition of BA and BI may seem much less important because the complexity of data and the corporate decision-making process is much flatter. In mid-sized organizations, we tend to be more concerned with rolling up the data into meaningful concepts so that management can put its fingers on the pulse of inventory, process, product, sales, marketing, etc.
Driving the Business
Still, the ultimate goal for mid-sized organizations should be the same: to achieve a means of driving the business from the executive decision-makers down through the various layers to line-of-business managers. To achieve this ability, these decision-makers require measurable and consistent metrics that reveal what's happening on the shop floor, in the inventory, in the sales offices, in the distribution chain, etc.
Until recently, the full power of a business analytic methodology was mostly beyond the ability of packaged ERP applications to deliver. Even with the addition of BI tools within ERP suites, there was a dearth of consistent metrics that could scale across all the modules in a reasonable manner.
For instance, one organization's sub-assembly might be a supplier's entire product line, which in turn represents hundreds of individual parts sourced from other members of the same supply chain. In this scenario, the roll-up of cost data through the associated bill of materials can be an anathema to the whole concept of top-down strategic business planning. Why? Because there's no meaningful non-competitive metric that can adequately describe the associated business models of the suppliers. An ERP system may tell you everything about what's going on, but it may be providing you with too much information to affect what should be going on.
How Cognos Express Provides BA
Business analytics suites address these inconsistencies by establishing external data warehouses with BI tools that map meta data to the metrics that upper management can actually use. However, the process of implementing BA for the largest organizations today still represents a major investment in time and resources.
Nevertheless, IBM became instrumental in scaling and modularizing the BA effort when it purchased the Ottawa-based Cognos in 2007. IBM used its significant understanding of business-process planning to bring together the talent and the methodologies needed by enterprise-level organizations to implement BA.
In 2009, IBM brought out Cognos Express, with the intention to provide BA for workgroups and mid-sized companies at a price that was more attainable than the full BA suites that IBM Cognos was offering to its enterprise-level customers. Cognos Express provides a set of modules for reporting, analysis, dashboard, scorecard, planning, budgeting, and forecasting. The solution was designed to be scalable but came preconfigured to minimize demands on IT.
IBM says that Cognos Express can equip everyone in the organization with the tools to help the organization create reports, analysis, dashboards, what-if analysis, plans, and budgets. It's based on a set of integrated core capabilities that are shared across all the modules, including these:
- An in-memory analytics server
- Data access to relational, OLAP, and local data sources
- A common web portal that delivers a single shared view of the business
- Tight security supporting single sign-on (SSO)
- A simple management console to control installation, configuration, and operation
The shared foundation permits you to add new Cognos Express capabilities easily by simply installing modules:
- Cognos Express Reporter
- Cognos Express Advisor
- Cognos Express Xcerlerator
- Cognos Express Planner
IBM Cognos Express Reporter
IBM Cognos Express Reporter is a self-service reporting and ad hoc query module for workgroups and midsize organizations. It permits users to access, modify, or develop reports quickly, without requiring IT to intervene. Once built, the reports are available to others in the organization.
Cognos Express Reporter includes the following features:
- Breadth of reporting capabilities, including financial, production, operational, transactional, managed, or ad hoc reports
- A complete, consistent view of information throughout a company to ensure users work with the same accurate data at all times
- Support for mobile workers who want to discover opportunities and analyze trends, regardless of their location, situation, or connectivity
- An interactive analytics experience for users who need to browse and explore data offline using their PC or Apple iPad
- Flexible reporting capabilities and access to all corporate data in any combination for comprehensive, accurate reports
- Simple, intuitive, drag-and-drop authoring capabilities for self-service reporting by any user
IBM Cognos Express Advisor
IBM Cognos Express Advisor enables business analysts, business users ,and executives in workgroups and midsize companies to quickly analyze complex data and share insights through high-impact visualizations. IBM says that Cognos Express Advisor makes it possible to go from raw data to analysis and a published dashboard in as little as 60 seconds.
Cognos Express Advisor includes the following features:
- Ability to connect to any type of data source—including personal, corporate, business intelligence data, and reports—for a dimensional view of the business
- An intuitive web interface that enables users to independently develop high-impact dashboards and analytic applications
- Flexible graphic displays for quick analysis of key areas, such as customers, products, and geographies
- Customizable visualizations and charts for more meaningful presentations
- Dashboards that can be created quickly and shared instantly
- Write-back capabilities to support immediate action and better outcomes
IBM Cognos Express Xcelerator
Cognos Express Xcelerator transforms common spreadsheets for real-time, Excel-based business analysis and optimization. It quickly delivers powerful multidimensional business analysis based on trusted information. The Xcelerator permits you to take advantage of existing Excel skills and investments while overcoming the risks and limitations of spreadsheet-only processes.
Cognos Express Xcelerator includes these features:
- "What-if" modeling for building and testing business scenarios
- Write-back capabilities that enable users to update plans immediately and align the right resources to capitalize on new opportunities
- Centrally managed data, business hierarchies, rules, and calculations to help eliminate data silos and inconsistencies throughout the organization
IBM Cognos Express Planner
Cognos Express Planner provides planning, budgeting, and forecasting. Its goal is to help transform the planning processes so the organization can react quickly to changing business conditions. It's designed to replace the slower manual planning processes with automated daily, weekly, or monthly planning tools using the latest accurate data.
Cognos Express Planner includes these features:
- A structured planning process that IBM says is easy to deploy and use
- Drag-and-drop planning model creation
- A blend of managed workflow and personalized analysis for improved business agility
- A web-based interface that enables finance and non-finance users to contribute plan data and view current plans with no coding skills required
- An in-memory analytics server for real-time processing with large numbers of contributors
Pulling It All Together
For mid-sized organizations that are considering implementing new BI tools or a new BA methodology, investigating Cognos Express might be a good place to start. The focus on self-serve, web-based access to OLAP, combined with many of the standard reporting tools that most mid-sized organizations are seeking, make it an attractive solution, and at the very least can help the organization judge and place a value on the BI tools they have developed or are currently using.
However, pulling together a comprehensive business analytics environment is—despite IBM's assurances—more involved than simply installing the Cognos Express solution. The packaged BI tools are good, but the larger effort to inform and coordinate management decision-makers to use the tools will still require time and commitment.
IBM Cognos has brought the tools of BI and the methodologies of BA closer to realization for mid-sized organizations. But the how the tools are implemented, and how management embraces them, will continue to differentiate the winners and losers in competitive business markets.