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The Right Stuff

Business intelligence applications are moving upward and outward. Corporate executives, business unit managers, customer representatives, and now customers themselves expect quality, timely information. A roundtable discussion reveals what's top of mind in the user community.

What's the current state of business intelligence? The answer is best told through the experiences and observations of those who bring it to life by leveraging an increasing array of data warehouses and application databases. To highlight our 5th Annual BI Special Issue, Intelligent Enterprise is proud to feature this cross-section of BI users in a roundtable discussion.

A key aspect of BI is that first word: "business." More than any other technology, BI succeeds when the business side is intimately involved in determining what will constitute the "intelligence" that IT can produce — especially when it comes to the great "real time" debate.

James E. Cates is VP, Information Technology and CIO at Brocade, a leading provider of storage infrastructure solutions. Cates draws on more than 30 years of IT leadership, and is the author of the influential "Ladder of Business Intelligence" methodology. Louis-Robert (Bob) Denis is CIO and VP at Trimble Navigation, a maker of navigation systems and software based on the global positioning system satellite network. He brings more than 20 years of expertise to the design and implementation of information systems, applications, and supporting infrastructure.

Rhonda Kirkpatrick is project manager with the State of Iowa Dept. of Revenue. She is joined here by Les Arnold, solutions architect; and Richard J. Puhl, Jr., lead data warehouse architect and Teradata V2R5 Certified Master. Steve Tracy is assistant director of Information Delivery and Applications Strategy at The Hartford Life Insurance. He has built production data warehouses in the healthcare, retail, and environmental engineering industries. (Note: Stuart Robbins, Executive Director of the CIO Collective, joined this discussion; see Strategic Knowledge.)

We thank the roundtable participants for their insights and commentary.

IE: How would you describe the contributions of business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing projects to organizations?

Rhonda Kirkpatrick: I would say that BI and data warehousing have brought strong return on investment. Tax revenues due to the State of Iowa were going uncollected until we had the tools and technology to identify likely areas for investigation of underreporting taxpayers. BI and data warehousing have given business users more information, resulting in higher ability to do their jobs and higher morale. Also, we've found that providing more consistent measurements, visions, and strategic planning across the organization has resulted from higher data quality and users' ability to work off the same data in the same manner. The BI and data warehousing system enables our users to perform "what if" statements to find out the fiscal impact of, for example, changing one of the line items on a tax return document.

Steve Tracy: All along, our most basic focus has been simply on increasing the speed of information. This has required getting information coming from systems scattered throughout the organization co-located in the data warehouse. We've been able to cut down on turnaround time, with our users now much more confident of being able to answer customer questions or analyze a case quickly.

Today, the focus is evolving toward alignment with business goals, expressed from the top down: basically, from our mission statement on down to departmental goals. This would fall under the guise of "performance management," which I define as basically how you measure how well your business is doing. We're moving from, in some cases, institutionalized, scheduled reports to more interactive analysis that fits with our performance management goals.

Jim Cates: In our world, we have a very structured process that's actually driven by business processes. I'm also the Corporate Process Officer. We have a Corporate Effectiveness and Efficiency Team (CEET), which meets to lay out key processes on a roadmap, and then we drive our BI initiatives around that. We have all the basics that everyone mentions: an extract, transform and load (ETL) tool, a couple of OLAP tools, a data warehouse, and even business activity monitoring (BAM) tools. All of this is driven by what I would call "cycle time to information by business role."

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