In the quarter century he has been following the use of business intelligence (BI) in the enterprise, Howard Dresner has seen trends come and go. One that seems solidly entrenched, though, is organizations' desire to get BI into the hands of more users.
While BI is spreading throughout organizations, it's doing so slowly. In his latest Wisdom of Crowds BI Market Study, Dresner found that in nearly 60 percent of surveyed organizations fewer than 20 percent of users have access to BI.
"We're moving the needle, but it takes time," said Dresner, the founder and president of Dresner Advisory Services.
Dresner compared the adoption of business intelligence to the evolution of the PC. "In the early '80s only senior managers had a PC in their office on a table somewhere. For most of them, it was a status symbol. They hardly knew how to turn it on," he said.
But PCs caught on big when freshly-minted MBAs and other folks who had used them in school began entering the workforce. Dresner predicts a similar shift for business intelligence.
"It wasn't until you had a generational change and those that had been through business school with PCs embraced the technology that PCs became mainstream," he said. "If you went to business school now, you'd learn a lot about BI and analytics."
Tools of the BI Trade
An emerging class of tools from companies like Tableau and QlikTech are facilitating the increased penetration of BI, Dresner noted, pointing out that Tableau wowed investors with its recent IPO. While not every knowledge worker can configure these tools, more sophisticated users can – and they sometimes buy and set up these tools with little if any input from IT.
"There are a whole lot of business users that can't wait or won't wait for this kind of functionality, or IT has established a standard that won’t work for them," Dresner said.
The risk with this approach is that organizations can end up with a disjointed collection of tools and a lack of consistent information – which makes it tough to achieve what respondents said was their top priority for BI, making better decisions.
One of the more interesting findings from the study is a correlation between business intelligence success and number of tools used. Those with fewer tools reported greater success with business intelligence. Among the least successful with BI were those who admitted they did not know how many tools were in use within their organizations.
C-level Interest in BI
This "speaks to strategic intent," Dresner said. "If BI is really important to strategic folks, they are much more likely to have a strategic deployment. There is probably not going to be one tool – but there is not going to be 10 either."
Senior management that view business intelligence as strategic was one of the top factors cited by respondents who reported success with their BI projects. Dresner mentioned the Cleveland Clinic, an organization he featured in his book "Profiles in Performance: Business Intelligence Journeys and the Roadmap for Change." He explained, "The CEO views BI as core to his success and passes it down, so everybody gets in line."
Highly committed senior management is one reason why the retail and wholesale industry reported the greatest satisfaction with BI projects, another of Dresner's findings. "Business intelligence is core to their mission and very operational, so it's going to be critical to the CEO of the organization. If they can improve their margins by 1 percent, that's huge."
Perhaps the biggest message from the research, Dresner said, is that BI vendors and others in the industry need to better understand what sets successful business intelligence projects apart from the less successful ones. Not surprisingly, respondents who reported the greatest levels of success had the most ambitious plans for future deployments while their unsuccessful counterparts were less interested in expanding use of BI.
"If a deployment bombs, they become gun shy -- and that is when everybody does what they want to do independently," he said. "As an industry, we need to determine how to take these early implementations and make them very successful so not only the organization itself is successful, but the entire ecosystem is."
Ann All has been writing about technology and business for 15 years. She is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today and eSecurity Planet.