BI on a Budget: Associated Grocers Shows It Can Be Done

Ann All

Two of the most common criticisms of business intelligence are that it is too complex and/or costly. A survey by the UK's National Computing Centre last summer found that 87 percent of BI projects fell short of original objectives, while nearly 25 percent exceeded the budget.


Such concerns have led to an increase in BI delivered via a software-as-a-service model. Customers include SMBs that can't afford traditional BI and larger enterprises hoping to fill functionality gaps in their existing BI deployments. I blogged about the latter trend just last month.


With that in mind, it's great to see case studies like this one: Louisiana's Associated Grocers handily addressed both cost and complexity concerns and got a BI system up-and-running for "less than $25k," as the headline ofa story puts it.


Initially, writes the company's CIO, the company spent $5,000 to hire a local vendor for instruction on how to cube data and build reports in Excel via pivot tables, an approach he calls a "mini data mart." Using the Excel interface was a plus, because the company had recently signed a Microsoft Enterprise Agreement.


After a mostly successful experiment with several reports generated this way, Associated Grocers purchased a product called Report Portal, which allows cubes to be added to a Web-based portal, where they are easily accessed by business users. You can click to an example of a BI report presented in a chart format, which the CIO says can be modified several different ways, to crunch sales data by different time frames, departments or stores.


The biggest advantage to this approach, says the CIO, is the flexibility it offers the company to learn as it goes along and to phase in capabilities as desired. He writes:

Others at AG share my concern of embarking on a large-scale implementation of an enterprise-level BI system because initially, AG had very little understanding of the scope, requirements and benefits, which is why justification was so difficult. If we had been able to justify an enterprise-level tool early in the project, it would still have taken years to implement. Our current mode of implementation allows us to learn at a very small cost and create a desire and appetite for more capability over time.

Among the system's few shortcomings: It does not offer any forecasting tools, which would allow Associated Grovers to run predictive analyses of data. It lacks "void reporting" capabilities. Large data sets sometimes cause cubes to freeze when trying to drill down to the item level, necessitating creation of additional cubes.


One caveat: The $25,000 total does not include labor costs. After the initial vendor consultation, much of the internal training has been done by superusers within the organization who bring other employees up to speed, notes the CIO. With that in mind, here's how he breaks out his costs: $10,00 each for professional services and the report portal, and less than $5,000 to license software.

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