Step Outside the Magic Kingdom

Conventional wisdom can crowd out innovation.

Just about everyone would agree that the true measure of success for a business intelligence (BI) software implementation is how well it transforms decision making into a "fact-based" activity. Perhaps that's what makes it amusing to see how hooked vendors and some customers are on Gartner's Magic Quadrants for BI and performance management, just two of the hundreds of reports the IT research and analysis giant produces.

Gartner analysts converse, ruminate and then plot the vendors into one of four sectors ("Niche Players," "Challengers," "Leaders" and "Visionaries") according to their "ability to execute" (y-axis) and "completeness of vision" (x-axis). Ever since company founder Gideon Gartner ingeniously invented this system, the release of a new Magic Quadrant has been treated throughout the IT industry as a religious event. "We measure the distance between our dots down to the millimeter," one BI vendor marketing chief tells me, describing how they evaluate their success against competitors.

Yet, at the recent Gartner BI Summit's Magic Quadrant session in Chicago, the analysts seemed defensive. Betsy Burton, Gartner VP and distinguished analyst, opened things up with a disclaimer, advising not to use the Magic Quadrant positioning as "the sole reason" to eliminate vendors from consideration. Research VP Lee Geishecker reminded the audience that the analysts "talk to hundreds of people, not just the vendors" to determine Quadrant positioning. "We evaluate vendors regardless of their status as Gartner clients," Burton added.

So, which vendors are in the upper-right Leaders sector — the only section that seems to matter? Millimeter highs and lows aside, there were few surprises. The BI Leaders featured Business Objects, Cognos, Information Builders and — for the first time — SAS. Hyperion was the width of a house fly's wing above Cognos for leadership in performance management. Perhaps expecting tomatoes, the analysts devoted almost as much time assuaging the disappointment of those positioned in the other three sectors. They offered a pep talk to vendors they thought would "move up" next time. They also let newer players like Kalido know they still must "overcome the challenge" of helping the Gartner analysts figure out where to fit them in the Quadrants.

The analysts highlighted performance management dashboard development as BI's hottest growth engine. Labatt Breweries of Canada, for example, is using Cognos BI and dashboard software to develop a national perspective — a tough task because the company's growth evolved around each of its provincial breweries, leading to information silos. Supported by an enterprise data warehouse, Labatt's role-based portals "allow you to log in and see your line of sight," says Mike Ali, head of EBI Change Management at the company. Performance management metrics communicate strategy. "To create reasonable behavioral change, you've got to put drill-down analysis within each role group and make sure that whatever the user is looking at is tied to strategic decision making."

In choosing products, it can make the most sense to go with established vendors, a mode Gartner's Quadrants tend to reinforce. However, as IT tries to foster change and implement service — oriented architecture with new technology such as an enterprise service bus — the topic of our cover package — the conventional wisdom implicit in the "nobody's ever been fired for picking a Magic Quadrant leader" syndrome can be blinding. In the Chicago presentation, the most interesting vendors often seemed to land in the lesser three sectors. To make good on a vision, sometimes you need a visionary.

David Stodder is the editorial director and editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise. Write to him at [email protected].