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The Dead Philosopher’s Guide to Shopping for Self-Service BI Software

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This post is a magic trick: I’m going to take my “useless” classical education, and turn it into practical business advice.

Believe it or not, the slow, plodding example of philosophy may be the best example you can find when shopping for real-time insights from self-service business intelligence software. That’s an odd thing to hear when you consider how fast-paced business is. But if you’re enthusiastic about rushing out and buying a self-service business intelligence software program, Aesop’s tortoise may be the best example.

If it sounds strange to find your inspiration in the classics, I’m following in a highly successful mold. Capterra’s CEO and Founder Mike Ortner’s once argued that the best way to prepare for a career in business was to learn the classics, rather than get an MBA.

Inspired by that, I’d like to suggest that the best guidance for shopping for self-service business intelligence software comes from dead philosophers.

That’s right, the “useless knowledge” I spent three and a half years on can actually help you make a profoundly practical decision. In fact, I’d like to take the Capterra spirit one step further, and say that old ideas from dead people can be the right way to make very present economic decisions.

1. Zen and the art of shopping for self-service BI software

The philosophy

The first dead shopping expert is Linji, a founder of one of the sects of Zen Buddhism (or “Chan” Buddhism, as it’s called in Linji’s native China).

Linji once said the best way to follow the Buddha is to “kill the Buddha.” In other words, focus on the goal (enlightenment), rather than how you become enlightened (his teachings). If you over-focus on how you become enlightened, you’ll miss the goal. I could go further, but here’s Bruce Lee (himself a college philosophy major at the University of Washington) explaining it better:

 

The finger is your BI tool, and the moon and heavenly glory are the insights you can get from your data

The philosophy in action

Gartner analyst Alan D. Duncan takes a similarly Zen approach. What’s the best way to shop for business intelligence software? Don’t shop for business intelligence software. “If you start with the intention of shopping for BI software, you’re starting at wrong place,” Duncan advises. “I see it all the time, the mentality that says ‘let’s buy the new shiny thing to fix things,’ and it never does,” he elaborates.

Duncan likens that mentality to buying a hammer without knowing what you’ll hit.

This flies against the wisdom of the crowd, in regards to BI. Business intelligence marketing jargon is as aggressive as any, promising huge savings from their products. To the BI vendor’s credit, they often have a lot of case studies to back up those claims.

But successful business intelligence isn’t a commodity produced by a tool. Business intelligence is a result fostered by a mindset. The BI software can help you get that result, but it won’t create it for you.

Another way to phrase this distinction: there’s “Business Intelligence” (software programs, Excel wizardry, BI conferences), and then there’s business intelligence (a data-driven outlook that puts facts first, and uses tools to supplement this mindset).

KEY TAKEAWAY: “Business Intelligence” isn’t a magic bullet. Before you shop for self-service business intelligence software, understand that software’s limitations. Simply buying the software won’t automatically make you a better businessperson. Look at business intelligence as something that flows from that right sort of mindset, rather than something that will make your problems go away.

What is that mindset? For that, we hop continents to another great thinker: Socrates.

2. Know thyself

The philosophy

If your initial focus shouldn’t be on the “Business Intelligence” tool, then what should it be on? Your needs, your data, your processes, and your objectives.

In other words, if you want to shop for business intelligence software, follow Socrates’ advice and “know thyself.”

Not just the wisest man in Greece, but the self-proclaimed ugliest

For Socrates, introspective self-knowledge was one of the foundations of a critical outlook. On more than one occasion, he advised his students (or opponents) to eschew esoteric knowledge, and instead first examine their own life. In fact, the whole “Socratic turn”—the key event in Western intellectual history—was a shift from a focus on the outer world (what is the universe made of) to the inner (what’s good,what’s bad, how should I act).

The philosophy in action

You should make a similar “turn” in shopping for business intelligence software. Before you focus on the outer things (vendor’s reputations, what functions they offer), know what your business needs are (what do you want to know, what data will you be using, what things about your own business do you want to improve).

Shopping for BI “comes back to the questions of what’s my strategy, what’s my business plan, why do I exist, what am I trying to achieve,” says Duncan.

You’ve got to have a degree of self-knowledge about what your business is, and does—that is, business intelligence—before you invest in Business Intelligence. Know how you operate, and whether those operations are a good platform from which to launch your business intelligence efforts.

Kari McNamara of Amend Consulting notes that “few leaders take the time to keep their processes current. Then they come along and put technology on top of a broken system and wonder why their problems aren’t fixed.”

The solution to this? Analyze your processes before you start shopping for BI software. Know yourself.

McNamara recommends even more self-knowledge when shopping for self-service business intelligence software: “Define what you must have, what’s nice to have, and what’s optional before you begin shopping,” she advises.

Sarah Hewitson, of neatly.io, agrees: “When it comes to shopping for BI software it really comes down to knowing what you want to get out of the tool.”

The emphasis there is on what you need. That will help guide your shopping, especially in a market as saturated and full of bells and whistles as self-service BI software.

Though every business is different, some metrics tend to be universally applicable for small and medium businesses. Similarly, Socrates’ emphasis on self-knowledge also included an investigation of certain universal ideas, called (big surprise here) ideas.

Matin Movassate of business intelligence software company Heap suggests that, whoever you are, there are some metrics that are universally applicable to SMBs. “For a lot of SMBs,” Movassate says, “retention metrics, like post signup, post activation, and others related to making sure your customers will stay engaged over time,” are valuable ones to track. “As an SMB, you’re trying to do a lot, but nothing matters if you can’t retain and engage.”

To that end, things like churn and repeat behavior for customers are the sort of knowledge that can help a starting business find a stable foundation.

In Heap’s case, this focus led to a Socratic style of customer relations. “One of the most important data points” Heap tracked when they first started was “just talking to customers, asking what their problems are, with the product and in their lives, and looking at how they used the product.”

It’s a good idea to look for vendors who are equally Socratic. Do they communicate with you? Do they try to understand your needs? If they do, that’s a good sign.

Know, also, if your employees will use the solution. What is their level of business intelligence maturity? Are they likely to use a new software program? Business intelligence software can be a game changer, but only if employees will use the program. Giving the tools to employees in a format they already know— their company’s software—is one way to increase the chances of a successful adoption.

To that end, Roseanne Winn of Izenda says it’s important to ask a vendor if their product can be embedded. “The ability to embed the solution into the workflow of the user will increase adoption and perceived value exponentially.”

If employees see the BI tool in a framework they know well, and are used to, you’ve got a much better chance of them using it regularly.

Knowing yourself also extends to the employees who’ll be using the program. Once you know who’ll be using the software, include them in the buying process. “Speak to the people who will actively be using the tool and include them in the shopping process,” says Hewitson.

Also, and this is a bit of a stretch, you want to democratize things with business intelligence. “One of the key aspects for building a self-service BI and analytics environment is the ability to provide democratization across the enterprise,” says Dave Costello of TechSposure.

So, take a hint from Socrates’ hometown (despite the fact that, technically, democracy was the noose Athens used to hang him—in Athens, trials were decided by a vote). Rather, take a hint from the sort of democratic environment that allowed Socrates to wander around asking questions, and encourage the same kind of critical, questioning openness in your employees.

KEY TAKEAWAY: When it comes to buying a business intelligence solution, knowing your own company’s needs and goals is the highest priority. Make sure your processes are stable enough to warrant investment in a self-service BI software program. Know whether your employees will use the program, and try and find ways to ensure that, such as embedding your BI program in software you already use.

3. Slow reading

The philosophy

How do you go about knowing yourself? Embrace the method of another great thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche. Though going from Nietzsche to Socrates constitutes philosophical whiplash (no, you can’t sue me for this, it’s not a real crime), for once, these adversaries are complementary.

Taken aback by the breakneck pace of industrial, modern life (and, mind you, this was 1886; even then people worried about the pace of life), Nietzsche proposed a sort of quiet rebellion in response: a practice he called slow reading.

The ‘stache, the hair, the jacket, the rejection of mainstream Platonic/Christian ideology—Nietzsche’s the original hipster

Nietzsche called himself “a teacher of slow reading.” “Slow” here doesn’t mean lazy. It means that any thinker should “step to one side, leave themselves spare moments, grow silent, become slow.”

You should avoid the sort of “haste” that characterized modern life, the “unseemly and immoderate hurry-scurry, which is so eager to ‘get things done’ at once.” Instead, you should “read well, that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eye.”

The philosophy in action

Had he been writing today, Nietzsche would have been a fan of the idea of being data driven.

Rather than rushing unthinkingly about business as usual, he would want his decisions to use the “inner thoughts” of a business: its data, whether that’s customer locations or transactional data.

To translate that to modern business jargon, don’t just keep repeating the same processes. Slow down, check your data, and learn to distinguish the signal from the noise. Before you shop, you need to be data driven. To be data driven, you need to be agile, and open to what the data says.

Duncan agrees with Nietzsche. Getting actual business intelligence (rather than “Business Intelligence”) requires a “mentality shift” in how you perceive of, and do, business.

The key is “the idea of moving from do to think,” he says, and “the reactivity, the curiosity and the critical thinking that comes with that, the willingness to scrutinize what we do and how we do it.”

The ability to “spot opportunities and take action quickly” is “a mindset, not a tool.” And it’s this mindset, Duncan says, that “sets the context for ‘what do I go and buy.'”

In other words, before you shop, make sure your mind is oriented properly to be able to take advantage of self-service business intelligence software’s benefits.

Though “slow reading” is a mindset for Nietzsche, there are other ways that slowing it down helps you to shop smarter. Take the time to “speak to the people who will actively be using the tool, and include them in the shopping process,” as Hewitson suggests.

Moreover, get to know their level of technical acumen, and whether or not they’ll be able to use the tool you’re shopping for. “Find out if the tools are suitable to what they need and are expecting,” Hewitson also suggests.

The best functionalities are useless if they aren’t the ones your team needs.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Though business moves fast, taking a little extra time, and applying the same focus Nietzsche espouses, will help you figure out what you need from a vendor. You’ll be ready to shop, rather than just browse. Invite employees into that critical thinking process by asking their opinions. It may take a little longer, but you’ll ensure your investment doesn’t go to waste.

4. Festina lente

The philosophy

It would be unfair of me to preach slowness and self-knowledge without addressing the fact that business requires speed, and that one of the strengths of BI software is that it speeds up the time to insight. All this talk of philosophy and the classics probably makes me sound like Thomas Griffin:

This sort of annoys me, but yeah… I laughed, too

So how can you combine the “slow,” critical, data-driven mindset with the speed business requires? Look to the Roman Emperor Augustus, a profoundly productive dead man, and his motto: festina lente.

Festina lente translates as “make haste slowly.” Like “kill the Buddha,” it’s another frustrating oxymoron that actually offers you a lot.

Basically, festina lente means you should balance thoughtfulness with action. Make haste, but don’t be hasty. It’s a fine balance, but so is being data driven. You need to be attentive to volumes of data, some of it real time, but all that information is no good if you’re jumpy and over-eager.

The philosophy in action

How does this apply to shopping for self-service business intelligence software? Don’t be hasty and immediately sign up for an extended license. Instead, shop by looking for pilot programs that will test the waters, and give you a sense of how well you adapt to being data driven.

“It almost doesn’t matter what you buy,” Duncan says. “You can make a start with an experiment, run some trials using real data, and you learn” how to think, and act, in a data-driven fashion. When you’re first shopping, “trying to validate data and figure out opportunities, you don’t want to get locked into license agreements.”

Instead, Duncan suggests, look for vendors “who will engage with you in low-cost pilots.”

That way, you’ve made haste to see if you’re ready for data, but you’re being slow and cautious about a larger investment.

Also, don’t dive into one vendor because they look good, are rated well, or sound promising (though checking reviews can be a good component of shopping further down the line). Be assertive yet judicious, and find the right tool for the right user. It may mean you spend more time shopping, but it also means that adoption will be far more likely.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Though it may sound counter-intuitive, find a slow way to be fast. Do that by looking for pilot programs, and avoiding the temptation to buy into an expensive license agreement.

Have you shopped for self-service BI software?

If so, how do your experiences track with what’s here? Let me know in the comments below!

If you’re looking to be very cautious, considering trying out a free or open source business intelligence program first. Alternately, a free data visualization program is a great way to test the waters.

Looking for Business Intelligence software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Business Intelligence software solutions.

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About the Author

Geoff Hoppe

Geoff Hoppe writes about business intelligence and field service management for Capterra. His background is in education and higher ed, but he’s interested these days in how small businesses can use software to be more agile and efficient. When he’s not reading and writing about software, he’s probably reading and writing about history, music and comic books, finding new hikes throughout Virginia, or following the Fighting Irish.

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