Business Intelligence Must Mesh with Your Business to Work

by Drew Robb

Business intelligence solutions must be easy to use and fit into the way your employees work if your BI system is going to be a success.

Business intelligence (BI) remains one of the hottest enterprise technologies, but finding a BI solution that fits dependably into your organization remains a challenge for enterprise IT buyers.

Boris Evelson, a business intelligence analyst at Forrester Research, notes that business intelligence (BI) features prominently in Forrester's top technologies to watch survey.

"We continue to see unrelenting interest and ever-increasing adoption levels of BI platforms, applications, and processes," Evelson said.

But he added: "While BI maturity in enterprises continues to grow, and BI tools become more function-rich and robust, the promise of efficient and effective BI solutions remains quite challenging at best, and elusive at worst."

As business intelligence is all about best practices and lessons learned, Evelson said, technology is only one piece of the puzzle. But he nonetheless feels that traditional business intelligence technologies such as ETL, data warehousing, reporting and online analytical processing (OLAP) have not kept pace with business and regulatory requirements. Therefore, business intelligence is always a work in progress and a field that will gradually evolve.

Evelson stressed several areas as the "new BI," including emphasis on business ownership and data governance, the combination of top-down performance management with bottom-up approaches, alignment with change management, and differentiation between front-office and back-office users and applications.

Mobile business insight a must

The traditional definition of BI, of course, involves the viewing of past, current and predictive data. Primary activities included reporting, benchmarking, analytics and predictive analytics.

But Barry Cousins, an analyst for Info-Tech Research, says business intelligence is rapidly moving toward more of a view of what it contributes to the business as a whole. First, traditional reporting is losing its place in the business intelligence suite if it exists merely as a passive reference source. Increasingly, business intelligence is expected to deliver meaningful insight within the context of a business action. When an executive needs decision support, for instance, a sound business intelligence offering delivers insight to the mobile device.

"When a sales agent is challenged on pricing, a modern business intelligence offering delivers discretionary pricing tolerance on the spot," said Cousins. "When a support center is running out of capacity, it alerts management with real-time trending on volumes and call types."

The new reality, he said, is that reporting and dashboards should not be considered business intelligence unless they are incorporated into the job flow. Users, he said, continue to prove that they will not stop what they are doing in an enterprise software product to refer to a separate business intelligence product.

"Integration is king, and business intelligence isn't all that intelligent if it does not get used," said Cousins. "And mobile business intelligence has a tangible role in business because of its ability to deliver insight to any context."

SAP leads in mobile BI

Cousins notes that SAP has a compelling mobile business intelligence story in the wake of its 2010 acquisition of Sybase. Its solutions support all major mobile platforms, while competing solutions may be less usable or unusable on Symbian and webOS devices, he noted.

"Meaningful interactivity with the rest of the SAP suite has already been developed, with the ability to drill through a visualization and save changes on the server before regenerating the visualization," said Cousins. "The mobile device seems highly interoperable with the rest of the solution."

But SAP isn't the only game in mobile. He added that other major business intelligence vendors such as SAS, Oracle, and IBM Cognos have competitive offerings. For standalone mobile business intelligence front ends, on the other hand, he likes RoamBi's iPhone/iPad solution.

"The charts are interactive, allowing the user to inspect components for more detail," said Cousins. "However, the platform is still view-only, not supporting collaboration or transaction processing."

PushBI by Extended Results, too, gets high marks. It is a multi-device mobile business intelligence platform that holds up well in a side-by-side comparison to RoamBI despite a somewhat more industrial feel, he said.

"While enterprise software vendors will continue to drive integration with mobile devices, the mobile business intelligence market is in its early stages and the role of pure-play mobile business intelligence vendors is unclear," said Cousins. "Mobile business intelligence may well be delivered as optimized web applications because mobile devices are rapidly maturing as web clients with better browsers and faster network access."


Self-service, easy-to-use BI is the future

Wayne Morris, CEO of myDials, has a different take. He noted that in the past, BI and analytics were used periodically by business analysts to produce reports and supporting information primarily for strategic decisions. But because of the high cost and IT resources required to implement traditional BI, use has been primarily within larger organizations that have a sophisticated IT staff.

"There are multiple demands being made by business that are fundamentally driving the evolution of BI/analytics," said Morris.

He lists several factors, including:

  • Making business intelligence information available to everyone making daily decisions, not just business analysts (Operational BI)
  • Making the business intelligence solution easy enough to be deployed and configured without involvement from IT (Self-service BI)
  • Making the information more real time to reduce the latency of decisions (Real-time / Right-time BI)
  • Ensuring that everyone (not just analysts and statisticians) making decisions can apply and understand analytics to enhance these decisions ("Every-person" analytics)
  • Making business intelligence affordable and easy to deploy for those companies that are smaller and don't have large IT resources through software as a service (SaaS BI).

"BI is not about simply providing the ability to visualize and filter data — it has to add meaning and deliver insight," said Morris.

He feels this is best achieved in several ways:

  • Alerting relevant people to issues requiring attention through alerts that are derived using an intelligent rules engine;
  • Providing embedded knowledge to provide context and enhance understanding of the information being presented;
  • Allowing people to collaborate and to share their knowledge and analysis through the use of data annotations and notes;
  • Providing easy-to-use analytics that help people characterize issues by applying trends, forecast projections, control charts, variance analysis and scenario analysis.

"BI/analytics help business people make better decisions more quickly by delivering timely, relevant metrics; contextual information and knowledge sharing; proactive notification of issues that require attention; analytics to characterize and determine the nature and cause of those issues; and the ability to perform ‘what-if' scenario analysis to determine the most effective action(s) to take," he said in an attempt to define current-day BI.

Morris thinks that social media has relevance in online marketing as well as being another source of data that must be analyzed and used in marketing decisions. Further, social media business intelligence capabilities allow people to easily share knowledge, insights and understanding.

"BI/analytics is undergoing a fundamental shift from being a specialized tool suitable for use by a small number of highly trained business analysts to a broad capability that empowers everyone on an organization making daily business decisions — this is the power of self-service BI," said Morris. "An analogy is the shift that occurred with online travel booking tools — these went from something only suitable for use by trained travel agents to something we all use in our everyday lives to book our own travel at our convenience."


  This article was originally published on Thursday May 12th 2011
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