If you are looking at this article, you’ve likely spent considerable time and effort to research, procure and implement a class leading ERP solution in the form of Microsoft Dynamics 365, or you may be possibly utilising a legacy Dynamics solution and thinking of taking the plunge toward 365.
Whichever side of the fence you are on, you will have data requirements, but how much consideration have you really given toward how to obtain and utilise your required information? – Have you asked the question ‘Why do you need reporting’?
Dynamics is of course a transactional ERP system, designed to run any facet of your business, and to capture all the resulting information that this creates. This data ends up stored in a complex relational database that sits quietly behind the scenes, growing minute by minute, hour by hour, throughout the course of the working day.
Do I need reporting or analytics?
Through your research into the Dynamics platform, you will already know that you are able to access some of your data through the inbuilt reports that sit within the application itself, however this will generally be at an operational level, and often, relative only to an individual business area or process.
This is great for normal daily, but does it answer the original question ‘Why do I need reporting’?
More often than not it may seem so, however it is likely to fall a long way short of the true needs of your business – Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is ‘What questions do I need to answer’ (see our prior blog ‘Take a step back to see the full BI picture’ for more insight into this process).
To give things some perspective: –
Should you need to know an up-to-the-minute count of how many purchase orders have been created ‘today’, or what is the current balance of account ‘xxxx’, then you can simply run a report straight from the ERP system.
What about more complex information, such as KPI requirements for your specific business, or true business analytics examining trends and patterns in data, have you taken into account how you may fulfil these needs?
Assuming you capture all your business data within your Dynamics 365 ERP, and why wouldn’t you as this is part of the value provided by the Dynamics 365 platform, then you need a mechanism to access, rationalise and distribute to your user community. This is something that simply isn’t possible within Dynamics itself, not past the basic operational data provision anyway.
What do you do next, how do you move past operational reporting and ensure that you can make the most of your investment? The world of BI can be a minefield, a costly one at that, but some careful consideration and thinking can help you navigate the pitfalls that could otherwise cause potential issues down the line.
Is self-serve BI really self-serving?
This brings us onto one of the latest industry slogans, something you will likely have heard many times before, ‘Self-service BI’, but what does this mean in reality? Most often it is a term used to describe a ‘tool’ that can connect to your data and then be used to compile reports and analysis, but how so, how is it ‘self-serve’? Simply put, it isn’t.
Multiple tools on the market profess to be self-serve, but without in-depth knowledge on databases and relational data structures, how can they be?
A simple analogy would be to compare self-serve to giving someone a toolbox and suggesting they are a vehicle mechanic! Sure, you can learn to use a tool, a screwdriver can go clockwise or counterclockwise, but unless you know how a vehicle is assembled and all of its inner workings you would likely do more damage than good if you tried to work on one. The exact same thing is true when talking about data.
You can learn to use a self-serve tool, as you can a screwdriver, however there is a huge difference between being able to ‘use’ a tool and ‘understanding’ its practical application.
This isn’t to say that self-serve tools aren’t a valuable part of your data arsenal, more that they need to be used in the correct context, and this is where we come onto the value of a data warehouse.
What is a data warehouse?
For those not familiar with a data warehouse, it is in essence a semantic layer that allows your data to be transformed from the complex and hard to navigate structure behind your Dynamics system, created to best serve the transactional functionality of the ERP system, into a sanitised data structure geared purely toward reporting needs.
Alongside the transformation of data to better suit business rather than systems, there are many additional benefits of a data warehouse that we have already covered to some degree in our previous blog ‘BI and Data Warehouse – Why wouldn’t you?’, however the key factors to keep in mind are the provision of data governance, enhanced data integrity and the single point of truth that a data warehouse can provide.
Why does a data warehouse then give greater credence to a self-serve BI tool? Simple – Going back to the analogy on being a mechanic, if you know how to use your self-serve tool / screwdriver, then a data warehouse is the equivalent of having taught you the inner workings of a vehicle to a sufficient level for you to then carry out any work that may be required, by simplifying and rationalising to a degree that is relatable.
So where would this leave you? – Assuming you capture your business critical data in Dynamics, addition of a data warehouse and implementation of a world-class data visualisation tool such as MS Power BI will provide you with an end to end governed and scalable data solution.
The beauty of a data warehouse is that should your data estate extend further than your Dynamics 365 ERP, it can also be used to incorporate information from external systems into a single location, again reinforcing the single point of truth and ability to govern the data that is utilised across your business.
The business Intelligence difference
Let’s now assume you have made the decision to utilise all the above, what difference does it make, how does it really help you and your business?
Your business needs to be driven by information to function correctly, regardless of what you do –
Ensuring that you have accurate, repeatable information available to your analysts and staff, is imperative in allowing you to understand what is happening within your company – how you are measuring against your KPI’s, how your customer and vendors are operating, what are your sales trends, management account preparation and so on…….
Implementing a data warehouse as part of your data strategy is key to this as without one, you cannot ensure anywhere near the same level of data governance or repeatability – How often in your career have you seen multiple people with different report numbers that should be the same, how often has someone asked how a report has been generated or where the data it contains has come from, or even what the definition of a metric is?
We have all been there, right?
You may even have dedicated analysts across the organisation whose sole job it is to compile reports day in, day out. It’s not uncommon in the business intelligence world to see a company have multiple staff working on a report for a week or more every month in order to deliver a single key metric.
This is the old-world way of working and whilst it may ‘work’, wouldn’t time for all of these staff be better utilised by them taking actions based on data rather than searching for it, or worrying about whether it is correct – After all, isn’t the point of information to put you in a better position to make decisions, not to spend your time perpetually searching for it?
After all, isn’t Intelligence the whole point of ‘Business intelligence’?