Bill Gates, in a May speech before the Microsoft CEO Summit, described the quest for better business performance as going that "last mile of productivity." Solving the "data-in" problem--that is, getting all information, structured and unstructured, into a digital system--does not alone deliver companies to the promised land of productivity. In Gates' view, all the value is in "making [information available] so that people can act on it, and so they get notified of what's important to them without being overwhelmed by these notifications. ... Not digging the ditch for that last mile can really block that entire dream."
In revealing that he plans to step away from his daily role as Microsoft's chairman, Gates appears headed down his own "last mile" at the company he co-founded. His journey will coincide with the beta testing and general release of Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, which the company announced on June 6. The new performance-management application will fill out Microsoft's business intelligence (BI) suite with tools for planning, budgeting and forecasting; create a more server-centric vision for Excel; and consolidate and upgrade technology already available within Business Scorecard Manager 2005, BizTalk Server and SharePoint. Also coming, though less fleshed out at this point, are tools to encourage model-driven approaches with business rules and workflow.
In other words, to engineer that last mile, PerformancePoint calls on multiple Microsoft resources. The objective signals a larger change in Microsoft's BI emphasis from "data-in" information management to the more user-centric, "data-out" problems of data delivery, visualization and interpretation. The company is confident its SQL Server and companion Analysis Services and Reporting Services are settled as the foundation; with the acquisition of analytics tool provider ProClarity, Microsoft is fitting the pieces together so it can step up to the next level.
Of course, the competition at that next level includes independent software vendors (ISVs) that dominate the BI space, such as Business Objects, Cognos, Information Builders, Hyperion and SAS, as well as specialists in performance management like Cartesis and OutlookSoft.
"The BI market already has been whittled down to some pretty solid players," says Keith Gile, principal analyst with Forrester Research. "However, many organizations feel that they have too many BI tools. They are looking to standardize and bring 10 or 15 down to three or five." While Microsoft could be held back if it can't integrate with existing heterogeneous environments, Gile says a complete, low-priced platform that addresses heightened performance management interest "will make people listen--especially systems integrators."
Thus, with "coopetition" the new name of the game for BI ISV relationships, "SIs become the influential partners for Microsoft," Gile notes. "SIs will want to take the PerformancePoint framework, and add their intellectual property and metrics for specific industries."
Performance management is crucial to running down that last BI mile, but equally important will be Microsoft's ability to bring enterprise search, process and collaboration technologies into the mix so that solutions better fit the needs of users outside customers' finance functions. On the road ahead, the challenge will be to guide Microsoft beyond software and into the world of solutions and services. --David Stodder
PREDICTING SUCCESSFUL SOLDIERS. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point will soon begin using business intelligence software (from SPSS) to compare current cadets' performance with data on high-performing cadets of the past 20 years who were promoted ahead of peers, obtained advanced degrees or became resident commanders.