Why do three billion people a day use a Web site that has a Spartan interface, a weird name (Google) and the capacity to do only one thing (the original search engine, that is, not the newer applications)? Perhaps the reason is that it always gives you more than you asked for, but what you want is usually on the first page. No one needs to install software, to do upgrades or, for that matter, to pay for it. And no one needs a training class.
Contrast this with Business Intelligence (BI) tools today, with complicated interfaces, software that is very expensive to purchase and maintain, and version upgrades that are often painful. These tools generally offer very broad functionality, but somehow it's never quite enough to solve the problem. There are, at best, a few million copies licensed worldwide (across all BI vendors), yet more than a third of these seats are shelfware, according Optima Publishing's OLAP Survey 4.
One could argue that phenomenon of the Web is so unique that it is unfair to measure BI's performance against it. The problem is that this is the second time BI has been eclipsed by another technology, as proven by the fact that there are more than 200 million licensed copies of Microsoft Excel in use today.
Rest assured, the current era of BI is coming to an end and will be succeeded by a BI 2.0 era that promises simplicity, universal access, real-time insight, collaboration, operational intelligence, connected services and a level of information abstraction that supports far greater agility and speed of analysis. The motivation for this "version upgrade" for BI is the need to move analytical intelligence into operations and to shrink the gap between analysis and action.
BI 1.0 Defined
Despite its drawbacks, BI is not a failure. In most ways, the facility for getting information to people where and when they need it is dramatically better than it was more than a decade ago, when reports were usually paper-based and required months of development to line up the data. But if you boil BI down to its basics, it is derived from only two things: data and reports. Most of the effort in BI in the last decade has been focused on the data issue data integration, data quality, data cleansing, data warehouse, data mart, data modeling, data governance, data stewardship. BI tools are dependent on these efforts.
Existing BI solutions are designed primarily for people who can understand the data models and who have time to build analyses from them, recall them for future use and provide information for others. Within most organizations, these experts account for about 5 percent of the salaried workforce. That was fine for a decade or so while we worked out the problems and fine-tuned the architectures and methodologies, but the people who are supposed to be served by this effort have largely voted with their feet and marched back to shadow systems, particularly spreadsheets, where the bulk of analytical work still takes place. While the number of BI users is increasing, the bulk of the increase is in passive report distribution, not active analysis, collaboration or decision-making.
Along with data, reporting drives BI. What is a report? At the simplest level, a report is the rendering of information requested from existing data, with at least some level of formatting and usually some added calculations, such as subtotals and totals at a minimum. Reports are read-only. Originally, reports were distributed on either paper or microfiche, but about 25 years ago it became possible to see them electronically. Today, they can be delivered to the Web, to portals, to cell phones, PDAs -- just about anywhere.
Making reports "interactive" doesn't really change their nature. The ability to select parameters, for instance, is actually a reporting application surrounding just another report. The ability to navigate through the elements of the data model interactively, such as OLAP, ultimately ends up as the visual display of just another report. No matter how many ways the fetching and formatting of data is embellished, it is still a report. Some OLAP tools are not read-only, but their use represents a tiny fraction of the BI use which, in turn, is an almost imperceptible fraction of the daily use of alternatives, especially spreadsheets.