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Stuart Robbins of the CIO Collective describes how BI's success raises the bar for future BI systems.

InformationWeek Staff

September 7, 2004

5 Min Read

Exciting times lie ahead. My guess is that the BI umbrella will grow larger, not smaller and more narrowly defined. The umbrella may have to rise in altitude, not just breadth, if the behemoths of the industry buy up the smaller players. However, it's telling that while the field of competitors in the BI marketplace has shrunk over the years none has grabbed a decisive, dominant market share. BI's customers aren't satisfied that we've reached the end of the story.

Collective Intelligence

The centerpiece of our special issue is the roundtable discussion featuring a range of professionals on the user side of the equation (see "The Right Stuff"). Due to space reasons, I had to excise the commentary of one of the participants, which I would like to run here. Stuart Robbins, executive director of the CIO Collective, has long been a wise, experienced voice in IT. The CIO Collective [www.cio-collective.com] is a unique animal in the midst of an environment dominated by no-holds-barred competition — not just among vendors but also among user organizations seeking information advantage and coveting the brains that can deliver it. The CIO Collective is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating, for business and IT executives, a place for educational discussion and interchange of ideas.

I asked the participants if they ascribed some of the weaknesses of today's BI and data warehousing implementations to a "build it, and they will come" mentality. Would the business process orientation becoming prevalent in BI thinking help solve this problem? "Most of us who went through the 1980s and 1990s now know that we have to work the business process issues first," said Robbins. "To some extent, this approach was encouraged by the vendors' hype that as soon as we installed the technology, we'd solve our problems.

"Companies go through maturity cycles. Sometimes the technology comes in at the end of a development cycle, and sometimes it comes in at the beginning. Where you are in that ebb and flow inside the IT organization may determine how able you are to take advantage of the technology. It may be that you're going to implement something that will really benefit the next generation more."

Robbins noted that the rapid, sometimes mindless buying spree has occasionally left egg on the faces of both vendors and users. "I won't mention the company's name, but I did a project recently for a respected software company that was having a difficult time competing with a startup nipping at its heels. We discovered that the major vendor actually had all the startup's functionality in its standard platform! It had a set of functions added a few years before to serve a particular customer's request; few people actually knew about it. The sales organization definitely didn't know. As a result, people were buying new tools to address a function that was already dealt with in the platform product they had in house. Having business users on board through the whole software acquisition process, rather than just at the usability testing stage, is critical — sometimes just to discover the full value of what your organization has already purchased!"

Compliance Catalyst

I asked Robbins how he would characterize the effect of today's compliance atmosphere on decision-making about BI. "The connections between the regulatory and the data management worlds are becoming more complex," Robbins said. "The obvious reason is the legislation, but the technology itself is taking us to a place where we can actually report on and have a view into things that 10 years ago would have been simply too complex to require of corporations. We can build systems now that can find out incredible things. That encourages new reporting requirements and new regulations about information.

"I've heard lately from a number of our associates that the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation is actually slowing down spending. Most companies need at least 90 days to completely document an unchanged IT environment; thus, they are locking things down except for urgent changes."

I'll close out this column with Robbins' observations about how IT people must (to use Brocade CIO Jim Cates' terms) talk effectively "above the line" — focusing on business goals and processes — as well as "below the line," where discussions about pure technology implementation should take place.

"Part of what we're dealing with is that most organizations today live in a global economy, and we need a vocabulary that can bridge all kinds of gaps," Robbins said. "We need a new way of talking about the business that isn't caught up in the plumbing terminology. Whether we choose vendor X or Y to deliver the plumbing functionality is kind of like decisions we make when we put a new bathroom in our house. The more important question is how you want your water to work. Why is it important to have the bathroom in this part of the house? We don't want to put a bathtub in here and find out later that it's the wrong room. We can answer these questions when we build a house, but we still struggle with these ideas in IT."

It's clear that nowhere will the bilingual ability to speak to both business and IT be more important than in BI's future.

David Stodder is editorial director and editor-in-chief of Intelligent Enterprise.

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