Application Vendors' Progress
Most BI solution providers are still very much devoted to stand-alone analytics or providing BI through APIs that allow business applications vendors to integrate reports, charts, KPIs, and more into their role-based portal environments. The portals bring users information aggregated from diverse sources, which enables them to perform some collaborative actions. However, the portal integration is largely just an extension of traditional reporting or analysis; "intelligent actions" are still driven by humans themselves. These systems can do little in the way of proactive decision-making, even when actionable information is available.
Fortunately, major business applications providers (particularly Oracle, PeopleSoft, and SAP) have recently embarked on technology directions that will break their tightly integrated business applications and processes into loosely coupled services orchestrated by a Web service-oriented architecture. The new approaches align well not only with how organizations want to manage business operations today, but also with the future of distributed networked services. The "grain" of the individual service will matter a lot when it comes to EBI. For example, if a company chooses to outsource a large-grain service such as human resources, it will need the SLA to state many intelligence requirements. A small-grained service, such as "validate a product against a corporate part master file" would demand fewer EBI requirements.
Business processes will determine the time sensitivity of EBI: In other words, EBI doesn't always have to mean "real-time" BI. To some degree, time sensitivity will depend upon how the business might define individual business service granularity: that is, whether the service performs an entire transaction from start to end, or just a portion. For this reason, the EBI infrastructure must be flexible, so that it can define actionable events in the business process and SLA obligations and orchestrate intelligent agents appropriately. A book order-to-cash process at Amazon.com may only last a few minutes; an order-to-cash process for a Boeing jet may last more than a year.
Driving Adaptive Businesses
In contrast to today's business portals and dashboards, the purpose of intelligent agents isn't simply to provide integrated information to users but to eliminate the need for such portals except where users still have to direct which actions to take. BI agents are intended to make the needed adjustments and decisions whenever and wherever they must be made, thereby eliminating the need for massive data movement across the business-process chain.
No data warehouses? Is this revolutionary idea possible? Is EBI possible? The answer is yes: And the technology will become reality faster than we realize. BI has come a long way, but it still presents primarily the historical view of what happened — and more recently, a present view of what's happening in business operations. However, as we move from a database-centered to a network-centered services paradigm, we'll need a different approach to BI, one that moves away from centralized data warehouse models.
Distributed agent technology will play a pivotal role. True EBI, through autonomous intelligent agents, will make business applications much more adaptive, allowing them to learn from the operating environment and act appropriately to run global business operations more efficiently.
Naeem Hashmi is CTO of Information Frameworks and strategic advisor to International Technologies Inc. He's an expert in emerging e-business intelligence, enterprise information architectures, and portal technologies.