When biting into a sour lemon your lips pucker up, you squeeze your eyes shut as citric acid rolls around your mouth and – unless you’re one of those people who kind of likes the pain – you think to yourself, “Probably shouldn’t have done that!” The shock lasts for a minute or two and things go back to normal, but when the lemon is a business investment like business intelligence software, you could end up with a bad taste in your mouth for much longer.
Where the Lemon Comes From
Let’s take a quick look at the automotive industry where the term “lemon” originated. A lemon is an automobile that suffers from mechanical or design problems that spoil the driving experience or even make it unsafe to drive. Although “lemon laws” have been passed in some places to protect purchasers from the effects of buying such cars, the preferred solution is to properly examine the vehicle before any purchase. You might look under the hood, take it for a test drive, or listen for any strange noises.
These common-sense actions or their counterparts in business are also a good foundation for evaluating BI software. Remember that an investment in a BI solution is not only financial. It is also one of time and effort of the people using the software, with associated impacts on enterprise performance and profitability. A proper evaluation for the right choice is therefore even more important. But then, why do some BI software investments turn out to be such poor matches to what the business really needs?
Seven Major Lemon Signs to Watch Out For
When businesses choose a lemon, only to wring their hands with remorse afterwards, it is often for one or more of the following reasons:
Poor understanding of requirements
Everyone who will be involved in supporting or using the BI solution must be part of the selection process. If business users don’t like the interface or can’t quickly and intuitively find the functions they need, your enterprise is well on the way to buying a lemon. Similarly, if your developers or data scientists despair over a lack of tools to build new BI apps for business advantage or your IT department groans at the extra effort needed to support and maintain, that’s a major “lemon alert” too!
A political instead of a business agenda
Your enterprise already has suppliers of IT solutions, some of which may offer business intelligence software. People in your enterprise may favor the selection of a specific vendor because of an existing relationship, or push for a BI solution to run on a certain platform for which they happen to hold the responsibility. Unfortunately, doing favors for friends or internal empire-building are no basis for good BI software evaluation, even though they account for an alarmingly high percentage of evaluation decisions.
Even if your business goals happen to coincide with those of another organization, your business strategy, and internal structure could be very different. A knee-jerk reaction to buy what your direct competitor has bought means you ignore a host of other crucial factors. The chances of acquiring a BI software solution that works for you are then very slim.
Inadequate test drive
Once around the block and back to the seller’s parking lot is not enough. Your different prospective users should use the software, your developers should try out the connectors and programming interfaces, and your enterprise should assess the quality and the pertinence of the results that come back. Any proof of concept or trial project should be based on a real business need, with a goal that may be modest, but that can measurably and usefully improve business performance. Cloud-based and on-premises BI software may offer different possibilities for a comprehensive functional evaluation, so be clear on what you are aiming for, and choose the platform for your test drive accordingly. Comparing with the evaluations of BI software reviewers and other users also helps to prepare and assess fully.
Inflexibility of the BI software for future needs
Markets, customer requirements, regulations, and business goals are constantly evolving. The basic goal of buying a business intelligence software solution is to make better decisions, even as conditions change. Business users need to ask new questions “on the fly,” developers need to make new types of BI applications, and the IT department needs to make the BI solution interface easily and reliably with new platforms and systems. By comparison, rigid BI software stuck in a time warp spells just one word: L-E-M-O-N.
Bad architectural fit
As your enterprise gets to grips with business intelligence and starts to see the potential, it may start using increasingly large datasets and multiple sources of data. BI software that only runs on your on-premise servers or that does not offer a scalable data architecture (for instance, partitioning of data sets for easier handling and backups) will soon strangle any ambitious BI initiatives. Complicated or missing connectors for accessing external services and databases from the BI software will put further limitations on possibilities, as will the lack of a suitable API (application programming interface) for other programs to drive the BI software and extract useful results and insights.
Blindsided by useless bells and whistles
Your business and user needs must come first. They must be mapped onto features and functions in the BI software that enables or facilitates your business goals, rather than the other way around. Other bells and whistles are irrelevant, at least for the moment. This highlights once again the need for good understanding of requirements, before looking at a supplier’s product or service specifications or interface.
Information is the Key
Good information is essential for an accurate evaluation of BI Software. You need to know what information is to be collected, and any information you don’t yet have will need to be obtained from sources such as the vendor’s specifications, independent reviewers, and your own hands-on assessment. A selection template can help you organize the information, as well as letting you score and compare different offerings while making sure you ask each BI vendor the right questions. For example, the main sections of your template might include “supplier,” “functionality,” “architecture,” “support,” and “purchasing criteria,” with a list of specific points to be checked for each section.
Avoid the Lemon and Pick the Peach in your BI Software Evaluation
To make the right choice of BI software for your enterprise, start by avoiding all the pitfalls described above. Continue the good work by factoring in information from existing users of solutions of interest to you (users in online forums, for example), and by being alert to opportunities for increased profitability today and business growth tomorrow. With the different sources of data available, such as vendor websites and online forums, you can get a large percentage of the evaluation information you need before you even make the first contact with a vendor’s sales team, helping you to stay close to the peach trees and away from the lemon groves.
Ready for a deeper dive on evaluating BI? Listen to our webinar with Martin Butler on How to Successfully Evaluate Business Analytics Software.