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  • Annand Sharma

Tech Recipe: How to pick the best BI tool for you

Background:

Long time readers of our newsletters are familiar with our focus on data. Software powered businesses generate data. Using that data in your business decision making process is the best way to extract value from that data.


The process of data driven decision making requires timely access to organized data. Day to day this has translated to an overreliance on spreadsheets. Some folks are comfortable seeing rows of numbers and outcomes in tabular format and this works great. The rest of us tend to respond better to visuals. Enter, modern business intelligence (BI) tools.

An Apple style laptop with generic business graphs on the display


Why do I want a BI tool?

A team using a BI tool to its fullest makes key decisions faster than a team without such a tool. While speed can be unlocked in other ways, the team using the BI tool builds a unique advantage. A rigorous, data driven decision making process. The team that uses and understands their BI tool can frequently, or even in real time, assess the impact of a decision. There’s no need for analysts to pore over reams of data to generate a report, turn it into slides, and have a meeting to present the report. Instead, they can just fire up a browser and see how things are progressing. A team united on their data and their process is a team to be reckoned with. This organization can rapidly outpace their competition.


Now the expensive question. Which BI tool is right for you? Despite tech company marketing, these solutions are definitely not one size fits all. In this recipe we’ll look at the classic tools in the arena, powerful hand tools, the modern tools, and finally the all inclusive, fully customizable toolset.


The Tools


The Classics

  • IBM Cognos

  • MicroStrategy

  • Oracle Business Intelligence

  • Qlik

Unless your business runs on mainframes and Oracle databases, you can do a whole lot better today. These tools are some of the earliest business intelligence tools. They are designed with business analysts and report writers in mind where modern BI tools are designed for people on the job.


Where these tools are expensive and have a learning curve, they also have deep networks of solutions providers and consultants. Businesses with on premise technology, a need for a BI tool, and money to throw at the problem can find a good solution with companies like these.


Hand and power tools

a hammer, level, and cordless drill with a paint bucket in the background

  • Excel (included with Office 365)

    • Best for smaller teams and/or teams that have access to data in CSV formats.

    • Very useful for teams with limited access to other technology resources.

    • <Editor’s note:> Google Sheets and Zoho Sheets also offer similar functionality, but in the area of spreadsheets Excel has been and continues to be the leader.

  • Looker Studio (included in Google Workspace)

    • Good for smaller teams with data in cloud based, digital sources.

    • Best for Google, or other web centric, data.

    • Not good for deeper analysis.

    • Important to note while this uses the Looker brand, it is not Looker.

  • Zoho Analytics (included in Zoho One)

    • Good for teams on Zoho looking for a step up from spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets and basic BI tools are like a hammer and cordless drill. These tools are useful and easy to keep around. While you can’t build a house or fix a car with them, you can take care of odd jobs, loose ends, and routine maintenance.


As a business user, these tools are great starting points when your organization is between 1 and maybe 50 people. Starting here, the organization can start to build that data analysis muscle. Develop a routine around collecting data in an organized manner, which will enable you to drop that data into these tools.


These tools offer common visualizations such as scatter plots and stacked bar charts in addition to basic data modeling. Learning how to make use of these tools, especially if they are included in your existing business software stack, will make the transition to modern tools much easier.


The tool wall

wrenches and other tools organized and hanging from a wall

  • Domo

    • One stop shop for companies looking to integrate data from sources, create dashboards and visualizations, and embed that data into existing apps or dashboards.

  • Mode Analytics

    • A company with data science expertise will get the most use out of Mode. The visualizations offered here are not the best, but what it lacks in visual punch it makes up for in analysis and modeling power.

    • Making the most out of this tool requires writing some SQL and maybe even some code.

  • Omni

    • The most recent entrant here, Omni is built on leading architecture offering the best performance and a clean, modern interface.

    • <Editor’s note> EBH is an Omni customer.

  • PowerBI (included in Office 365 Enterprise)

    • Good for smaller teams with data in cloud based, digital sources.

    • Great for teams moving up from Excel with the very straightforward import from Excel functionality.

  • Sigma

    • Self explanatory, straightforward UI will feel instantly familiar to power spreadsheet users.

Does your organization have close to 100 people and is growing, or are you growing rapidly? Are you introducing more specialized roles to the team? We’re now talking about BI tools built with a function and purpose in mind. These tools have modern designs and technology architecture. Just like a stocked and organized tool wall, these tools are easier to use, understand, and powerful. They are cloud based and designed to make routine tasks simpler.


Companies with at least one full time data analyst role, possibly even a growing team, will want to be shopping in this aisle. If that data analyst is technical and can write code, consider Mode Analytics. For organizations that are Microsoft power users we recommend starting with PowerBI.


All of the tools above offer customization from inputs to visualizations to multiple data models. While these tools enable many use cases and are best used by a skilled practitioner, they are still approachable by a novice. Labeling, relating, and modeling data is a particular highlight in this segment. These tools offer both SQL interfaces and visual methods for transforming raw input data into something more useful and tangible for your business.


Other than Domo, these tools do require your organization to have gathered your data into some kind of data warehouse or data lake. In an earlier recipe we discuss data pipelines.


The bespoke factory


a modern automobile assembly line with yellow robot arms doing the manufacturing

  • Looker

    • Built to make SQL more collaborative, Looker has one of the most powerful and also easy to understand data modeling languages, LookerML.

    • Cloud native, Looker works best when your data is already organized and structured in a data store not streaming directly from your business applications.

  • Tableau

    • One of the first modern, cloud based BI tools, Tableau offers dozens of connections to popular software. Outside of official connectors, there is a community of organizations building even more data connectors.

    • Enterprise grade security and permissioning means that IT users can perform set up functions, Data Scientists can perform modeling, and business users can be given granular, or broad, access to relevant data.

The tool wall is all things you can buy off the shelf. Now we’re looking at specialized, tailored, customized tools to your business needs. These are the most powerful, most expensive, and most complex BI tools out there. Teams buying these tools likely have a medium to large sized team of data people. These may be data scientists, data engineers, or data analysts. This team considers the other business units their “customers” and is building data tools for each team.


Empowering your teams to make the most of these tools either requires an IT team or engaging the vast network of consultants and system integrators. These BI tools are like a race team’s tool box. They have all the tools we come to expect, and specialized tools they design and build themselves.


Customers of these tools may have many different teams with different data visualization and reporting requirements. An organization with a team running a production line that requires near real time visibility and a sales team that needs weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports can find solutions to these and more use cases from one vendor. These tools allow for customizable, embeddable, and flexible visualizations.


Conclusion

Picking the right tool for your use case and your business will pay dividends, as long as you put the upfront time investment into the tool. Evaluating software vendors is challenging. You will sink dozens of person-hours into setting up the BI tool. Here’s some tips to help ensure you select the best vendor for your needs.


Whether you’re just getting started with Excel or running a growing enterprise and considering the modern professional tool kit, there’s a large array of BI tools made for your segment and use case.


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