Can You Spy BI?

Monday Mar 24th 2008 by Tim Scannell
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Business Intelligence is all the rage. Too bad it's all over the dashboard on use and usability.

What you see is not necessarily what you get.

At least that's the case with a lot of business intelligence software, which many companies tend to deploy with the use of spreadsheets over easier to digest graphics as a way of presenting data, and understanding how to use the data to form strategy.

"Individuals do not realize the extent to which using spreadsheets hinders their efficiency," says Robert Kugel, senior vice president and research director at Ventana Research. The firm regularly follows the use of business intelligence software tools.

The firm's prognosis: Half of the companies the researchers spoke with reported finding major errors in spreadsheet data and formulas, and close to 42 percent have come to expect out-of-date and relatively useless information in the spreadsheets they use everyday.

"One of the most striking findings from our research is the degree to which people who use spreadsheets have become numb to the real risk of losses and difficulties they pose," notes Kugel.

The problem is getting worse as more companies make use of multiple internal and eternal data flows and information mash-ups to create more accurate pictures of the competition, as well as customers and future business opportunities.

"Traditionally, the users of BI tools have been limited to 'power users'," adds Joydeep Das, an ITSG product engineer with database software maker Sybase. In this playground, the statisticians and financial analysts are at the top of the pecking order. Increasingly, however, "line-of-business managers and frontline employees such as customer service representatives are being armed with BI tools and dashboards."

So here's the rub, experts say. BI helps end-users make sense of a flood of data with visually-appealing graphics and laser-targeted use of data in order to make informed decisions or devise strategy. But not as many users truly understand how to use the tools.

That's not stopping its appeal, however. Take the recent acquisitions frenzy in the BI sector. Last November, IBM (NYSE:IBM) paid $5 billion for BI solutions provider Cognos, a long-time partner that worked with Big Blue on many of the same customers.

The deal followed SAP's $6.7 billion acquisition a month earlier of Business Objects, and Oracle's $3.3 billion purchase in May 2007 of Hyperion.

Together, all of these BI companies add up to about two-thirds of what will be a market worth more than $7 billion by 2011, says research firm Gartner. This can create some problems for those competing head-to-head on the same technology playing field, but also presents opportunities for new and "pure-play" BI vendors with a talent for presenting more visually-oriented data on BI "dashboards."

Digestible BI?

By translating numbers into visual representations and even real-time dials and gauges, BI dashboards can relate to everyone up and down the corporate ladder and can graphically pinpoint trends that might otherwise be missed.

"BI products suddenly become dramatically easier to use and consume," points out Sanju Bansal, executive vice president and CEO of Microstrategy, a BI solutions developer. "Users don't necessarily like pretty pictures, but they do like one-stop shopping for investigating the data."

Next page: BI's Evolution

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The evolution in BI toward more graphical dashboards and animation has also shifted many of the core capabilities of BI technology, such as query, reporting and online analytical processing (OLAP), to lesser secondary roles, notes Gartner.

Animated dashboards and predictive modeling are the must-have features now, as existing and new BI vendors develop "innovative technology and products to demonstrate differentiation," says Gartner senior research analyst Dan Sommer.

"Tools that are developed around visible intelligence help make a company more efficient and allow people to make quicker and more relevant business decisions," notes Carl Hasselbach, co-founder and CEO of The Ministry of Ideas (MoI), a visual BI startup based in New York and Scotland. The end result is a positive boost to a company's bottom line and return on investment (ROI) metrics.

"In the past, BI was focused on making data more visible and more manageable, but not enough on supporting the bottom line," he says.

"Increasingly, the focus of (ROI) metrics is shifting away from technology paybacks to business benefits," adds Sybase's Joydeep Das.

Sounds reasonable. Why then aren't more companies banging on the door for visualized BI solutions? Many, says MoI co-founder Mark Throssel, are a bit gun-shy and reluctant to adopt yet another BI solution.

"They have already gone through the pain of developing information systems and there is a great deal of frustration," he points out. "We have gone this far with BI, so why isn't it working?

Just as art is in the eye of the beholder, a few pretty pictures won't be enough to convince most companies to pull the trigger on visualized BI tools.

Procuro, based in San Diego, has developed a suite of solutions that can be used to monitor, measure, collect, analyze, and report a variety of data back to a central IT facility or to remote users. This data is gathered from a variety of sources, including wireless sensors installed on refrigerated trucks and public databases, says CEO Vincent Gordon. Customers include large hotels, hospitals and major retail food chains like Burger King.

While the idea of visualized dashboards is exciting, however, the system relies on dashboard technology that is more like 'buddy mail' and leans heavily on alerts and messaging technology to deliver real-time information from the field.

"The bigger concern is a two-degree shift in the temperature of a product being transported, which can result in one-day less in shelf life," he explains.

Larger companies seem the obvious target for visualized BI tools, since there is usually more on their plate to watch than at a smaller firm. "Visualization tools lower the barriers of BI adoption across the enterprise," stated Sybase engineer Das. ""This enables a significant number of employees to take ownership of decisions within their functional areas and also share their experiences in a collaborative fashion."

Smaller companies may have an even greater need for BI pictures rather than numbers, however, since they do not have the same resources and money for dedicated accounting and research departments, says MoI's Hasselbach.

"Think about how small businesses work," he explains. "They have less resources and time to spend on business analysis. They have to use their time more effectively."

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