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How to Evaluate Modern Business Intelligence & Reporting Tools

Devon Tackels

Content Marketing Manager, Sigma

Microwaves and dishwashers revolutionized home cooking and cleaning, but not everyone was eager to adopt the new technologies. Some feared they were unsafe, while others thought they couldn’t be as effective as traditional methods. Many didn’t yet know all the benefits, so they struggled with letting their old habits die.

Progress is often disruptive, even in business. Data teams have traditionally used business intelligence (BI) tools to curate data and present insights in reports and dashboards. Newer BI reporting tools do much more than that — but data and business leaders who evaluate solutions might not be aware of all the possibilities. Even worse, they may assess new tools based on the capabilities they’ve always used, without seeing the potential for more.

If you’re evaluating a modern cloud BI solution, ensure you’re approaching it with the right mindset. The latest tools designed for the cloud data warehouse, like Sigma, can improve your business in ways legacy tools can’t.

What’s new with BI and reporting tools?

Before we explore what’s changed in the most recent wave of BI and reporting tools, it helps to understand where we started.

The first and second wave of BI

The first generation of BI tools were designed for on-prem data warehouses. They were dashboard-centric and required deep technical backgrounds to operate. These tools helped surface weekly/quarterly metrics and answer questions asked in advance. Data teams built and managed these dashboards, reserved for the C-Suite, and ran queries in batches at scheduled intervals. This meant that any time new questions arose from business teams, or additional follow-up information was needed, the data team had to jump in and modify them. This paradigm meant that business teams were frequently waiting for answers.

The next generation of BI solutions aimed to simplify report and dashboard creation through a ‘self-service’ approach that was slightly easier than earlier tools but ultimately failed to make data accessible to entire organizations. They still centered around visualizations, dashboards, and reports, but provided limited interfaces which business users could navigate themselves with training. Despite these advancements, ad hoc questions and reporting still required data teams to make modifications. While the second wave of BI solutions increased access to insights, the majority of people who needed insights failed to get them on time.

The rise of the cloud and a new approach to BI

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the growth of big data (high data volume, variety, and velocity) and cloud computing. All this data and computing power allows for greater, more complex questions to be asked. And while dashboards remain essential, they don’t allow for the in-depth data exploration and analysis required to answer these questions. Ad hoc analysis is more important than ever — and without it, some of the most valuable insights can’t surface.

The newest generation of self-service BI tools are more comprehensive than their predecessors. Dashboard and report production are still necessary features, but as part of a larger set of capabilities. As you evaluate them, there are some key things to consider.

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Here’s what’s different about these new solutions:

  •  They’re built for the cloud data warehouse and can handle massive amounts of data (billions of rows from hundreds of data sources) now collected by organizations. This includes multiple data types, including semi-structured JSON.
  • They can analyze all that data in real time, enabling ad hoc exploration and analyses to answer business questions as they arise — instead of relying on scheduled batch reports.
  • Cloud data warehouses offer faster compute, more scale, and unparalleled flexibility — allowing modern BI tools to return complex queries quickly.

Look at BI tools from a new perspective

How do new features and capabilities affect how you should evaluate BI tools? The differences require an entirely new approach to assessing and choosing a BI solution. However, it doesn’t need to be as daunting as it sounds. Look for a tool that:

  • Allows you to take full advantage of your cloud data warehouse
  • Offers more than dashboards and reports, which are now table stakes
  • Can be used by domain experts who aren’t fluent in SQL
  • Lets business leaders ask ad hoc questions by pulling data from multiple sources

Seek out next-generation features like these:

  • A variety of publishing modes that allow you to not only create dashboards and reports, but also share and embed dashboards within other applications, schedule and automate reports, and integrate with third-party apps like Slack and Google
  • Security and compliance features like object and row-level security, as well as providing user access permissions according to team or role
  • Simple joining of datasets to ensure teams can wire schemas and merge vetted datasets on the fly from the warehouse, CSV files, third-party sources, and elsewhere.
  • The ability to parse JSON so users can quickly analyze relevant data from apps, websites, and SaaS services
  • Last-mile data prep capabilities including semantic data modeling on top of the data warehouse, which allows domain experts to understand data better and generate insights. This one is important because 87 percent of data projects end up going nowhere.
  • Cloud data warehouse integration for faster setup and deployment across the organization

Why it’s worth checking out the latest cloud BI tools

A modern cloud BI tool, like Sigma, will offer features that allow both data and business teams to create reports and dashboards, but in ways that are more visual, collaborative, intuitive, and interactive. It can also open the door to greater insights by providing business leaders with ad hoc reporting capabilities without writing SQL.

Deploy a modern BI tool and help your organization achieve maximum ROI from your data investment. Benefits include:

  • Faster setup and deployment across the organization
  • Broader access to data, making it possible for business teams to generate more insights than ever before
  • Lighter workloads for data teams as domain experts generate ad hoc analysis and reports themselves without SQL
  • Improved accuracy with real-time cloud data warehouse access
  • More efficiency with automated reporting and dashboards
  • A single source of truth that keeps data secure, compliant, and in context with direct yet guided data warehouse access

Any time a new technology emerges, it can be hard not to embrace the old habits and perspectives. As you seek out and evaluate your next BI tools, be sure you’re approaching it with the right mindset.

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Still have questions? Read our free online Guide to BI Reporting here.

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