Getting Smart Is Getting Cheaper

As small and mid-sized companies begin taking advantage of the plethora of analytic tools available, the trend will build on itself.

The time is ripe for inexpensive—even free—yet high-functioning analytic tools to improve efficiency and productivity.

Take the example of a roofing company in the Bay area that uses Google Earth, among other analytic tools, to prospect for business.

"When a customer calls them and requests a roofing job, the first thing they do is get on Google Earth. Once they pinpoint the location, they use software that measures the size of the roof and the roof pitch. That way, they can decide whether they want to bid prior to driving out and looking at the roof," said Steve King, senior advisor at Institute for the Future and leader of the Future of Small Business Forecast Project. The growing use of analytical tools by businesses of less than 500 employees was a major finding in a recent report by the organization.

In addition, the company uses Google Earth to scan the neighborhood where they are performing the work to search for other potential work. "That way, they can call to say they will be in the area and can offer a very competitive price. It's a great example of using analytical tools to prospect for work," King said.

Just a few years ago, analytic tools like these were complex and expensive enough to be considered by only large companies with significant IT expertise. Such tools, from companies such as Business Objects and Cognos, offered companies with the money and experience the chance to improve performance and efficiency through better reporting and analysis.

Although many of these companies now offer slimmed-down versions, sometimes in the highly sought-after SAAS (Software as a Service) model, there is a larger trend—that of easy-to-use, high-functioning analytic tools, either at very low cost or free.

"There is definitely a new wave of analytics available to smaller businesses," said Laurie McCabe, vice president for SMB Insights and Business Solutions at New York-based AMI Partners, an SMB research and consulting firm. "These new tools are designed much more bottom-up, and are priced right and have the right mix of ease of use and functionality to appeal to smaller businesses."

This new breed of affordable analytic tools, such as software from TransNexus, help optimize how employees are dispatched. LucidEra is another vendor of business intelligence tools that cover reporting, billing analysis and more, delivered as a SAAS product. And that's just two examples. There are dozens, McCabe said.

Some are even free. Google Analytics, for example, offers more than 80 reports designed to help companies analyze the effectiveness of their Web sites, keep track of the performance of marketing campaigns, evaluate how well keywords are working and more. Google Earth, also a free tool, combines satellite imagery, maps and search technology to help people pinpoint specific locations and surrounding areas. And both have plenty of competitors, including Microsoft's Gatineau analytic tool, now in beta. Another is NASA's World Wind, visualization technology geared for use by business and government that's also a competitor to Google Earth.

And as small and mid-sized companies begin taking advantage of the plethora of analytic tools available, the trend will build on itself. JupiterResearch, a New York-based market research firm, early last year predicted that 35 percent of small and mid-sized businesses would deploy a Web analytics-based solution within the next 12 months.

"We are just at the cusp of a combination of things that are starting to provide interesting analytical systems to any group," King said.

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