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Analyze This: How Many Employees Really Need Business Intelligence Tools?

For years, vendors have touted "pervasive BI." Business Objects and Microsoft make another run at it.
The day is coming when all employees will use business intelligence tools. Sound familiar? BI vendors have been forwarding this vision for years, though it remains mostly a vision. They're at it again. Business Objects last week touted business intelligence for "all individuals" in introducing new products, and Microsoft will be pushing the agenda this week at its first BI conference, in Seattle.

BI remains the province mostly of data-analysis specialists because companies don't see the business case in equipping every employee with number-crunching tools. Usability, the time and expense of training, and up-front and ongoing costs were cited as barriers to BI adoption in an InformationWeek Research survey of 500 business technology professionals conducted in March. Just one in four respondents say their companies provide BI tools to more than a quarter of employees, the same level as in last year's survey.

Another problem is that too much work is required to customize BI tools for specific types of users, says Mark Smith, president of Ventana Research. That's led to a growing number of niche vendors that develop BI tools for specific job roles, such as those from AIM Technology and Merced Systems for call centers.

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Business Objects For Everyone
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  PRODUCTIVITY PACK supports Web services, SOA connectivity
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  ON-DEMAND CONNECTORS bridge local and Web-based BI capabilities
Yet it's also true that BI has begun moving beyond the desks of financial analysts and other specialists to sales, marketing, and customer service professionals. About 50 marketing people at StubHub, the online marketplace for events tickets that eBay bought in January for $310 million, create their own Business Objects reports to make decisions about where to target promotions and online advertising. They can analyze customer buying patterns and demographic data to determine when purchases for a particular event are likely to peak so they know the right time to advertise, for example.

StubHub marketers don't have unfettered access to the BI system. Using a drag-and-drop function, they create reports based on analysis already churned out by trained specialists. "My team does the real intricate analysis work," says Rob Singer, StubHub's director of BI. "What we didn't want is people generating reports from scratch that could be wrong or misleading."

Business intelligence is increasingly being used by on-the-go businesspeople, too. New software from Business Objects makes it possible to deliver reports from servers to handheld devices, and lets authorized users make changes to the data in those reports. Cognos introduced similar software last September.

According to our survey, mobile BI is on the verge of widespread adoption. While just 13% of respondents say they're making BI available to mobile devices today, another third plan to do so in the next two years.

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Business Objects also released a "productivity pack" that lets companies publish BI queries as Web services, making it easier to incorporate BI capabilities into all sorts of applications without a lot of custom coding, says Business Objects VP Juliette Sultan. Another new product, Xcelsius Enterprise, draws on the productivity pack to provide personalized BI dashboards within Microsoft Office applications.

COMING-OUT PARTY
Microsoft has been expanding its BI offerings for the past few years. At this week's conference, it will announce new partnerships and product plans, says Chris Caren, general manager of Office business applications at Microsoft, though he declined to provide details. This summer, Microsoft plans to introduce Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, server software for creating scorecards, budgets, forecasts and reports. "BI reaches, at most, 10% of information workers," Caren says. "We see a huge ability to drive much broader usage."

We've heard such projections before. Maybe Microsoft will be the company that finally delivers BI to the masses. Or maybe it needs to do some further analysis of its own.

Editor's Choice
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer