As the costs of business intelligence technology solutions drop, the pressure to keep up with your competitors increases. Fortunately, dropping costs also create an increasing number of affordable options. So if the soaring IQ of your competitors makes you feel like a dummy, here are seven steps to get you on your way to mastering your data and leveraging it for better business decisions.

Step One: Cut through the hype
Tech research firm Gartner created the “hype cycle” for tracking emerging technologies. In 2013, it reported Big Data was at the peak of the “inflated expectations” phase. So, as you seek to improve your company’s business intelligence, avoid anxiety-producing hype and focus on what you need as an organization to begin making better business decisions. You can deal with the massive volume of unstructured big data barreling toward you after you get your structured “little data” under control.

Consider starting small with a pilot in one department. And once people begin to see the potential, it may become important to be disciplined about keeping the focus on business intelligence that will affect a decision rather than the “nice to know” facts to avoid “scope creep.”

Step Two:Set realistic expectations
If you’re like many people, you dream of viewing a dashboard every morning with accurate and real-time data on all the key performance indicators that you care about. Some companies have achieved the dream, but for many of us, the reality is a variety of systems and processes with limited integration, inconsistent data quality, and a lot of workaround spreadsheets. Even if you decide to go with an integrated vertical solution from a major provider, the transition will not likely be as quick or as easy as you’d like. Setting realistic expectations at the start will help cultivate the patience needed to reach your dashboard dream.

Step Three:Inventory your data and reports
The process of inventorying your existing data sources and reporting will likely be overwhelming—and possibly illuminating. It may bring into question the reliability of the data you’re tracking and may uncover hundreds of reports, many being used inconsistently throughout the organization. It may unearth those spreadsheets mentioned earlier requiring diplomatic skills to lower the threat level felt by staff that are rightfully proud of their elaborate “works of art.” Once you know what you have, consider what you’re missing, both in terms of data and reporting.

Step Four:Agree on your metrics and reporting
The metrics you use to judge performance are your company values. They create incentives and disincentives that will drive organizational culture and staff behavior. As such, they should be the end product of a collaborative strategic planning process.

Likewise, determining how data is presented also requires a thoughtful process. The visual presentation of data is something of an art form. Determining whether a table, graph, pie chart, red-yellow-green light, or a dashboard is most appropriate requires an understanding of both how the data will be used and the end user. Minor variations in data can appear small or large depending upon how they are presented. Keeping a critical eye open for intentional or accidental data manipulation through presentation tricks keeps the decision-making process honest.

Step Five:Clean up your data and fill in the gaps
From your inventory process, you know which data needs to be trashed, scrubbed, or standardized, so that apples are truly being compared with apples. And you can also now figure out how to get the data you’re missing. With your wish list of desired reports, you can create your plan to get everyone the business intelligence they need to make faster and better decisions.

Step Six: Seek and develop a new skill set
The future belongs to strategic thinkers who are fluent in analytics. Those in highest demand will be the ones who can dig deep in to the data, separate the signal from the noise, reveal true correlations and causes, and translate insights into effective company strategies. When searching for new analytic leaders, the goal will be finding strong analysis and leadership skills combined with strong data skills.

Step Seven:Support the new culture
A more data-driven culture can have seismic implications, especially for companies that have traditionally relied more on instinct or company mythology. For the new culture to survive, the organizational change will need to be actively supported, including assessment and revision as needed. You don’t want to lose the qualitative components that make your organization a great place to work and your communities great places to live in the search for quantitative perfection. Finally, enforcing data quality control will become much more important, as that data will likely be driving important company decisions, including employee compensation.

Given the rapid pace of change, an eighth step could be to start the whole process over again. Keep in mind that while the process is about the data, the goal is about improving your company’s decision-making process. And dashboards of data are worthless without the human “business intelligence” acquired from years of trial, error, and experience to make sense of it all.

Rick Haughey is vice president of industry technology initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council. He can be reached at