Search And Business Intelligence: Complementary Tools

More companies are beginning to use search alongside business intelligence tools to let more people find the right piece of information faster.

Rick Whiting, Contributor

March 3, 2006

4 Min Read

Habitat for Humanity finished installing a data warehouse last month to help track and analyze its finances. The system is based on technology from AnalySoft, to go along with the Business Objects business intelligence software that Habitat uses for reporting tasks. But the group doesn't think that all of its future data mining and analysis needs can be fulfilled with those applications.

Habitat, which builds homes for poor people, believes it might add homeowner demographic information to the data warehouse over the next couple of years, and that it might need to use search technology instead of conventional business intelligence software to help find that data when it's needed, says business analyst Mike Sabot.

Search technology encompasses everything from Google and Yahoo online tools to enterprise software from vendors such as Autonomy and Fast Search & Transfer. And it's quickly becoming a critical element of the information management toolbox within many companies. Search generally isn't a substitute for business intelligence tools, but it can be better suited for some tasks, such as when the specific source of needed information isn't known.

Business intelligence tools are designed to help users looking for a specific answer or wanting to get a view of a data set, says Gartner analyst Betsy Burton. They generally support structured queries into known information sources such as a company database. Search tools, in contrast, are more free-form. Users may not know exactly what they're looking for--the process of discovery, in fact, can be just as important as getting the final answer--and the data source may not be known. Still, "I don't see search replacing business intelligence," Burton says.

Useful And Ubiquitous
Even so, search tools are showing up in places where business intelligence hasn't worked well. EMC recently added Google Desktop for Enterprise search capabilities to its Documentum Enterprise Content Integration Services, letting users conduct federated searches that look for information across numerous data sources with a single query. That's a difficult task for many business intelligence tools without a lot of systems integration work on the back end.

Search also is changing user expectations about business intelligence tools. Why are such applications so difficult for everyday knowledge workers to use, while search is so easy and provides instant answers? "The ubiquity of search is certainly changing the game" in terms of the performance users expect, says Don Campbell, VP of product innovation and technology at Cognos, a leading BI software vendor.

BI tools can be more relevant to "the language" of a company, including its business model and the structure of its IT system's metadata, Campbell says. Search relies on keywords and may not provide answers in the context the user is looking for, he says.

Business intelligence tools also provide consistent, reliable answers through the use of common interfaces throughout an organization, says Beau Redstone, BI manager for North America at Foster's Wine Estates Americas. "The more standardized your BI system is, the better," he says.

The most likely scenario is that search and business intelligence will become increasingly complementary. Search tools will be layered on top of business intelligence infrastructures, providing an easy-to-use, "fast front-end" interface for a range of work- ers, says Dave Girouard, Google Enterprise's general manager. Business intelligence tools managed by IT or experienced business analysts will generate reports and data sets against which employees will apply search tools to find specific information.

Over the next five years, search-engine vendors such as Google will establish relationships with online information providers, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar database, the U.S. Census Bureau, and Major League Baseball, predicts Gartner's Burton. Those relationships will involve building links between their search tools and the metadata that underlies those databases, which will make search more like a BI tool in that it will be searching structured data for specific information and answers.

Business intelligence software developers already are taking steps to tie their products to search technology. This week, Information Builders will unveil WebFocus Intelligent Search, which, using the vendor's iWay integration software, lets users search structured and unstructured data using the Google Search Appliance and combine the data for analysis using the WebFocus BI tool. Cognos, SAS, and SPSS are among vendors that link their BI software to IBM's OmniFind, a search engine for perusing unstructured information in documents, E-mail archives, Web pages, and other sources, using IBM's WebSphere Information Integrator.

Google's Girouard says a lot of IT in use today, including most business intelligence software, "was designed by and for experts." That won't cut it as IT becomes an increasingly critical part of how people work. Adding search to the mix just might make business intelligence a little smarter.

Illustration by John MacDonald

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