Flying High With BI

With business intelligence suites finally getting in sync with broad user needs, the software is poised to enter the mainstream and elevate operational decision-making.

Ease-of-Use Conundrums

Business conditions change so quickly that it's often hard for users to say what they want. The technology can all look pretty cool, which makes it hard for IT to prioritize: And IT hates to appear unresponsive. The BI industry thought ad hoc query tools would solve the problem of changing user requirements and IT backlog. They didn't. Staring at blank report screens or, alternatively, trying to choose from every data element in the warehouse didn't fulfill dreams of user empowerment.

Greater ease of use is a key to putting BI successfully in the hands of more users. IT often forgets that users already have other means of making decisions: gut feel and best guess, for instance. And they have ways of getting at information: They might ask controllers or analysts for it. The point is that if BI tools aren't better and faster than established methods, users won't bother with them.

Vendors have taken many paths to improving ease of use. Many offer dashboards that users can customize so they see only relevant indicators for their jobs. The days of coding for each EIS are giving way to graphical icons that users can drag and drop to build dashboards in a few hours (See the "Field Report"). In a few clicks, they can find out which customers are more likely to churn or which products are running low on the shelves. Dashboards make users' lives easier, but they put a wrinkle into the benefits of BI suite integration: All the leading BI suite vendors have some kind of dashboard capability, but more robust capabilities are more often found in products from niche players such as Celequest, arcplan and ProClarity, to name a few.

Business Objects is tackling ease of use from many angles, particularly in its upcoming interface called "Intelligent Question." This will make BI more question-centric than data- or report-centric. Users choose from a number of questions, including "Which suppliers are shipping on time?" Intelligent Question lets you toggle on elements of preset questions to change, for example, "shipping on time" to "shipping incomplete orders." Business Objects designed the interface to ensure that there are no wrong questions or questions that return no results.

Vendors are also giving customers the ability to match functionality to user profiles. SAS, long criticized for overly complex software, has been a leader in this area with its Web Report Studio interface. With business users clearly in mind, SAS intentionally limited the features offered through this interface. More powerful capabilities are reserved for the SAS desktop product, Enterprise Guide, intended for power users. Business users can still access the powerful analytics when Enterprise Guide users publish their stored processes to Web Report Studio.

MicroStrategy takes the concept further by offering a series of "privileges" through a single, Web-based interface. Executive users, for example, access the same software as business analysts. Executive users, however, might only see run, sort and print report options, while business analysts could choose from a menu of all options.

Of course, feature-laden products represent only one side of the problem. On the other side are the customers, who need to become better at prioritizing according to what will deliver the biggest impact. For example, report-based interactivity gives users the ability to fine-tune existing reports by sorting and filtering. When BI products don't deliver such interactivity, both IT and end users feel the strain. IT is forced to develop variations of the same reports, increasing the backlog. Users, meanwhile, resort to exporting data to Excel: acceptable once, but a labor-intensive, data-quality-damaging mess when used for recurring reporting requirements.

The point is you can overlook simple yet valuable features if you focus too much on power-user stuff that makes a difference to only an exclusive group of users and their reports. Vendors and users still focus too much on giving users as much as possible--dense pages full of numbers rather than simple, visual graphs highlighting trends and exceptions. All BI products provide at least basic charts; some include (or partner with specialized software providers to provide) more advanced visualization capabilities such as maps, gauges and scatterplots. Yet many users don't know how to use the visualization features and fall back on a thick presentation of numbers.

Business and IT in Partnership

Technical innovation won't alone bring BI success. Technology only gains value when used adroitly. BI must support better and faster decision-making activities that technology alone can't improve. For executives, that means giving IT better direction and prioritizing the metrics and information that truly drive business initiatives. And for IT managers, this means prioritizing rather than responding to whoever shouts the loudest--or feels most threatened by technology change. Given that surveys still show that business and IT seldom share common goals, you'll no doubt encounter turbulence while flying high with BI.

When Howard Hughes first envisioned commercial aviation, people thought he was crazy. Fifteen years ago, executives thought that only they needed access to information. Today, most realize that quality, timely information is a necessity at every level of the organization. That means that BI should be poised for mainstream adoption — as long as vendors, IT and business users agree on what's important and don't get distracted by bells and whistles that aren't useful.

Cindi Howson is the president of ASK, a BI consultancy. She teaches the Data Warehousing Institute's "Evaluating BI Toolsets" and publishes independent BI research on Write to her at [email protected].


Make BI the Catalyst for Business Change

The Brief
» BI is all about the quest for better business performance, smarter customer relationships and competitive advantages overall. Data silos, a legacy of departmental fiefdoms, stymie enterprises that are trying to become more customer-focused. Spreading BI to more users--some call it "BI for the masses," "operational" or "pervasive" BI — is key to raising enterprise IQ and aligning strategy with execution.

» Anchor BI on a single source of information. Decentralized BI and data marts plus heavy dependence on personal spreadsheets have left a legacy of poor analysis and data chaos. Use data warehousing and integration to recapture control of data quality.
» Learn to love spreadsheets. Experienced users are unlikely to give up Microsoft Excel. Licensing may make it too expensive to provide BI tool access to everyone anyway. Make the most of BI-spreadsheet integration to ensure data quality.
» Build BI dashboards that offer self-service customization. Web-based BI tools from both the big suite vendors and niche specialists speed up implementation — and save IT from having to customize every desktop.

» Data quality determines BI's credibility and success. Users will return to their silos if enterprise BI delivers inaccurate or dirty data. Regulatory demands put added pressure on IT to maintain data quality.
» BI vendors are getting smarter about what users want. Major providers give you the option of tuning dashboards and interfaces so users get what they need--and only what they need.
» Technology changes put analytics on steroids. Powerful, more affordable hardware is on the way. It may help you overcome limitations of conventional BI software.

Action Items
» Address data quality problems. BI will stall — and so will customer-centric business initiatives — if users can't depend on the data.
» Deploy BI dashboards that match users' needs. Remember that queries always beget more queries. Don't clutter interfaces with stuff that doesn't deliver answers.
» Gain the analytic edge through advanced technology. "BI for the masses" will create a huge market for richer and deeper analytics. Is your organization prepared to deliver?