Image by David Bleasdale, CC license

Analytics is one of the top buzzwords in business software today. Analytics software is often marketed as a tool for business intelligence, data mining or insights. It’s the crystal ball software: tell me things I don’t already know, and show me ah-hahs or other exciting revelations that, if acted on, will increase sales, cut costs or produce some other benefit.

The essential elements for analytics are:

1) A design for your ‘stack’ which is just a term for layers: usually at the bottom you have a data layer, then a translation layer, then on top of that some kind of user interface layer. The translation and user interface layers are usually provided by the analytics vendor; you provide a place for data storage.

2) A way to send the data to your data storage, automatically, which is usually referred to as “ETL” or extract, transform, and load. SnapLogic and Informatica are two vendors who offer these tools.

3) Some way to “harmonize” the data, which means define each data element and how it will be used in analytics. “Sales” will mean such and such, “Gross Margin” will be defined as ……

These three components can be on-premise in your building or in a cloud hosted by a vendor.

SAS, based in North Carolina, has long pioneered this space, and now many business software firms claim to provide “robust analytics.” The problem: what constitutes “analytics”? Canned reports are not analytics. So you’ll need to shop this category knowing that probably the most serious applications will come from firms that are dedicated to analytics.

International Data Corporation (IDC) reports that the business analytics software market is projected to grow at a 9.8% annual rate through 2016. IDC describes the market as dominated by giants Oracle, SAP and IBM, with SAS, Teradata, Informatica and Microstrategy rounding out the top 10 in terms of sales revenue. Although the top 10 account for 70% of the market, IDC reports that “there is a large and competitive market that represents the remaining 30%…hundreds of ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) worldwide operate in the 12 segments of the business analytics market…some provide a single tool or application, others offer software that spans multiple market segments.”

Here are some other interesting analytics or business intelligence (BI) products: Qliktech provides easy-to-develop dashboards with graphical representations as well as tabular and exportable reports. Its Qlikview software is an “in-memory” application, which means that it stores data from multiple sources in RAM, allowing the user to see multiple views of the data, filtered and sorted according to different criteria.

Information Builders (IB) is a software company classified by advisory firm Gartner as a leader in BI applications. IB’s main application, WebFocus, is a flexible, user-friendly tool that is popular with sales teams because salespeople use it while visiting customers to enhance their selling messages with facts and visual interpretations of data.

WebFocus has a “natural language” search capability, making it useful to monitor and analyze social media.
Birst, named by Gartner as a challenger in the BI space, is a cloud-based (SaaS) application that offers “self-service BI,” deployment to mobile devices, adaptive connectors to many different types of data sources, in-memory analytics, drill-down capabilities, and data visualization. The Birst tool also has a data management layer, allowing users to link data, create relationships and indexes, and load data into a data store.  Tableau is another similar vendor.

It’s useful to start small and experiment with analytics.  People in your organization with good quantitative skills and imagination can experiment with tools, usually at very low cost.  Soon you will see some interesting results and will want to do more…but make sure to put in place some rules about what constitutes sanctioned and official “analytics” in your organization, to prevent uncontrolled proliferation of un-validated information.