Britain’s ‘backbone’ companies like retailers, manufacturers and insurers could change the game by understanding the flood of data from their business systems. If they could understand customer preferences better, they could innovate faster, re-think entire supply chains and transform their costs.

Instead, many companies’ lines of business make do with the slow, inflexible reporting, typically provided by core Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems that frequently provide only limited, out-of-date information and even less insight on things such as profitability and ROI.

Big Data analytics, touted as a ‘route one’ to system and customer insights, can be a challenge for many firms – despite all the hype. Until companies understand how to optimise and accelerate their reporting systems, they will be restricted in both their understanding and ability to respond quickly to market change.

To avert raising end users’ expectations with over-enthusiastic promises of new analytics capabilities, the IT industry should look carefully at what UK companies can (and crucially cannot) realistically do with system reporting, both now and in the next couple of years.

Global vendors claim that analytics engines capable of delivering transformation are widely available, but what can an enterprise or mid-range firm realistically achieve by speeding up its reporting and building the foundations for analytics systems?

A lot of firms have started laying the foundations with data warehousing, speeding up and adding sophistication to reporting out of ERP systems. Tools such as SAP Business Warehouse Accelerators have enabled wider company management to use data to improve decision-making and speed up responsiveness.

Next generation appliances, now available to UK firms, could take these advances a stage further. The latest appliances like SAP’s new HANA, in-memory, analytics database tool take row-level data and turn it into management information much more quickly.

These software innovations enable company IT teams to build up virtual information layers without switching in and out of disk and memory. Because all the information is accessed in-memory, query times are greatly reduced, as are demands on their resources and reporting cycles.

Achieving faster data analysis makes for a more responsive, productive business. Firms can analyse data and further improve decision-making cycles. The ability to query corporate data in real-time enables lines of business to gain vital new insights into customers’ behaviour every day.

Crucially, appliances such as HANA could soon be a practical proposition for UK firms. They can be quickly installed, limiting disruption to the business’ day-to-day activity and providing more accurate cost-efficient analysis. Management can examine hitherto ‘hidden’ areas such as sales demand and supply chain trends, harnessing these tools to identify unseen data patterns.

This is an important breakthrough in terms of making the business case for an analytics development project. In the past, initial development projects to scope and improve ERP reporting were an expensive, ineffective and long-term commitment. Even proof of concept programmes (PoCs) were seen as costly and an onerous commitment for the IT department.

With the right approach, decision makers need not fear the previously expensive and long development cycles for ERP reporting experienced in the past. The difference this time is the UK systems integrators are working with specialists in analytics. This leads to faster development cycles and reduced risk in data analytics programmes.

Moving reporting out of ERP systems hasn’t previously been a practical or viable budgetary proposition. However, having gained experience implementing other analytics appliances (such as Business Warehouse Accelerators), specialists are starting to provide expert test and implementation skills around data analytics.

Crucially, they are able to deliver a new wave of proof of value (PoV) capabilities and pre-configured assessment models. These boost in-memory analytics capabilities and strip out the in-house development costs that have previously bedevilled them.

As well as their track record helping customers, these system specialists can point to another powerful reason why analytics is a practical proposition for Britain’s firms. They are experts in analytics toolsets and the project management skills required.

They can thus deal with any project’s infrastructure side as well as the relative merits (or demerits) of changing the different software tools employed by the end users’ in-house IT teams over time. They are able to act as specialist consultants alongside the main systems integrators that recognise their own skills gaps.

Both system integrators and analytics providers can also work effectively with the IT team’s Project Management Office (PMO) to build crucial momentum and deliver meaningful results, reducing the entire project’s risk.

The frustrations of extracting the right data from complex ERP platforms and transactional systems can be dealt with. Analytics tools are a realistic option for UK businesses that will help them optimise their ‘locked up’ data assets and analytical processes – ultimately lightening their reporting workload.