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Metrics Builder puts business users in control of BI data -- at a price

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IDEALLY, BUSINESS MANAGERS should be able to analyze company performance without having to first call in a SWAT team of programmers and DBAs. After all, business requirements and objectives change frequently according to external and internal factors, such as economic cycles, market dynamics, and skill and performance of the workforce.

Unfortunately, many BI (business intelligence) solutions offer managers and business analysts a limited degree of flexibility beyond preconfigured metrics, which may result in waiting for IT to administer the tool, just when it's needed most.

Metrics Builder 7.0, a recent addition to the Brio Performance Suite, addresses that exact problem. We found Metrics Builder to be a very flexible, easy-to-use tool that allows business analysts to create dynamic dashboards, which contain online charts and reports that change dynamically according to new data and user profiles. The product name could be deceiving since Metrics Builder is also the vehicle to deliver those dashboards to company managers who can access personalized results from a friendly, browser-contained GUI.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Metrics Builder is its potential to be IT-agnostic. Granted, deploying the solution's complex architecture requires IT support and possibly implementation assistance from Brio. But once the solution is up and running, you may never need to bring technical people in the loop again, except to perform routine operations and maintenance tasks, such as optimizing queries for faster responses or refreshing the Data Mart with new transactional data.

With that in mind, Metrics Builder can be regarded as the logical evolution of those spreadsheets that marked the end of business users' dependency on IT two decades ago. Metrics Builder's capabilities exceed those of a simple spreadsheet, however, delivering the aforementioned dynamic dashboard. With a few mouse clicks, the information presented on these dashboards can be sliced and diced to the desired level of detail, down to single transactions. Moreover, Metrics Builder has powerful dashboard cloning features that ease the task of keeping problem areas under control.

An overview of Metrics Builder's architecture and features illuminates the solution's inner workings. A built-in separation between metrics that are already deployed and others that are being developed helps business analysts explore new algorithms without disrupting other users. Evolving metrics are not only kept in a separate library, they're dispatched to a different server, which makes it easy to dedicate different machines to prevent, for instance, a wild query from locking up the production environment.

Both environments share the same Data Mart that is fed with transactional data, using data transformation tools of your choice (one of those routine IT tasks that we mentioned before). Moreover, business analysts can add information to the Data Mart from a spreadsheet, from example or from the resulting data of new metrics, which is clearly a flexible and effective alternative to submitting a ticket to your IT people.

We tested the features of Metrics Builder on Windows 2000, using a laptop with pre-installed software. Our test script was focused on a typical sales management puzzle: Identify the reasons and prescribe a cure for poor pipeline performance. Therefore, the metrics and charts that we used were tailored to that objective. However, Metrics Builder has hundreds of pre-configured metrics for a variety of performance monitoring tasks and, as mentioned, business analysts can adapt them (or build new ones) for different requirements.

Upon logging in to Metrics Builder's analytic client, our first screen displayed a worrisome picture: Our fictional company was closing fewer deals compared to one year ago. A dashboard with four bar charts indicated a clearly declining trend over the past four months. With a simple mouse click, we expanded each chart to full screen and were able to quantify the problem in dollars and percentages compared to one year ago. Less than half the sales had been generated in the current month.

Nothing out of the ordinary so far: Any BI tools, given proper data, can present similar information. However, Brio adds a twist. The first concern of a manager facing a problem of this size is assessing whether the information can be trusted. Typically, a call to the business analyst (or the CTO) who prepared the information is in order. By contrast, using Brio Metrics, the desired explanation of the information is only a click away. By selecting the Info icon on the same screen, we had access to the Metrics Library. It described in plain English how each chart worked and which formulas and data were used to produce those results.

Once satisfied that the information depicts a real problem, the next likely step for a manager is to identify the source -- such as a large, recurring sale stuck in the pipeline, or a division or territory significantly below target. To that end, Metrics Builder offers excellent, easy-to-use tools that allow the end-user to examine the same data from a different perspective or to drill down the sales organization structure until the reason for poor performance is evident.

Putting the finger on the probable cause of the problem is only a first, albeit important, step. Whatever the anomaly, it needs to be addressed and monitored. Metrics Builder (or any other BI tool, for that matter) cannot prescribe a cure; that's the manager's call. But Metrics Builder does help managers keep a watchful eye on problems, allowing them to easily create custom dashboards by copying and pasting the chart related to the problem area. Those cloned charts inherit all the properties of the original, including the capability of drilling down to the transaction level.

Brio Metrics Builder has many interesting features that business users can activate, without writing a single line of code, to attain a more accurate and flexible understanding of the business performance of their company. That flexibility comes at a significant price, however, that should be compared with, and likely offset by, the expected return in profitability and efficiency for your company.