AI or BI in the era of digital transformation?

Worldwide, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are being produced every day. This endless flow of information is a cornucopia for the companies who have developed the capability to analyse and leverage this data into actionable insights. Whether it’s to drive revenue, control costs or optimise operations, it is now an imperative that no industry is immune to. The big data is revolution is now well underway.

Despite the hype, if I were a business considering what technologies I could use to start leveraging my data, AI and Machine Learning would be fairly low on my list. As sexy and fascinating as they are, they are also expensive, highly technical and I would argue, only worth the investment when your business has already reached a certain level of maturity.

For the majority of businesses who are still years away from that sort of capability, the good news is that much can be achieved without reaching for AI. I have seen first-hand, just how much progress can be achieved using the visualisation and algorithms of the BI (Business Intelligence ( software such as PowerBI, Tableau and QlickView. While falling short of the holy grail of AI, it nevertheless allows you to scale and automate your human intelligence, so that it ticks many of the same boxes.

Apart from being very cost effective when you’re using it, it’s actually costless when you’re trying it for the first time. Power BI and Tableau for example, both have free versions. Only when you’ve created something worthwhile that you want to share with other colleagues do you incur a cost. In other words, the cost of failure is zero, but the prize is potentially huge.

Starting from Zero

So, if you’re are looking for a place to start experimenting with this, then look no further than your own spend data.

The first advantage is that your spend data is big. In many cases, it is the largest source of data your business has. In the past, where your only analysis tool was Excel, this would have been a hindrance rather than a help. No longer is that the case. BI software can comfortably handle millions and millions of rows without buckling and when it comes to data and insight, bigger is better!

The second advantage is that, however messy the data is, it comes in a tabular format. This structure lends itself to automating analysis, that would have been too resource intensive to attempt, but once built, gives you effortless insight at the drop of a hat. Even before the hard analysis come in, getting simple visibility of spend across all categories and business unit for the first time creates an immediate call to action. “I had no idea we were spending that much with Supplier X” is a sentiment that we hear echoed again and again.

For the purpose of keeping it to three, the final reason for starting with spend, is that it offers an excellent ROI. The cost savings that arise, simply from seeing and controlling spend, more than pay for investment in technology and skills. The companies that approach it more proactively and aggressively will find even greater efficiencies and savings as well as the softer benefits of reduced risk, greater policy compliance, and a higher proportion of boring or repetitive work automated away, leaving time for the real value-add projects.

A new mindset

As often as not, biggest constraint with technology is not the technology, but the mindset of people. Talk of automation and digital transformation can raise the hackles of employees who feel threatened. Even at a C-suite level, being “data driven” is more often a soundbite then a philosophy. After all, if you’ve spent decades learning honing your intuition in the absence of data, it’s tempting to go with gut-feel even when the data disagrees.

This said, I’m optimistic, for no other reason than it works. The body of evidence increases every day that being data driven, leveraging technology and insight works; it leads to better decisions and over time those who fully embrace the technology, be they companies or individuals, will edge out those who don’t. Don’t believe me? Just wait. If you’re interested in how you might be able to use the emerging technology to transform the way you run your business, please contact (

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