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Business Objects, Microsoft Promise Pervasive Business Intelligence--Again

Business Objects and Microsoft are announcing new products that promise to spread business intelligence throughout the workforce. What's different this time?
"Get ready for pervasive business intelligence!" Sound familiar? Software vendors have been proclaiming that for years, and it's a theme they won't let go of. Business Objects wrapped the idea of pervasiveness around several new products announced Wednesday, and it will be the main theme of Microsoft's first business intelligence conference next week in Seattle.

But BI isn't pervasive because many businesses haven't found value for it everywhere. Problems with usability, including the time and expense of training, and both upfront and ongoing costs were cited as barriers to business intelligence adoption according to an InformationWeek Research survey of 500 business technology professionals in March. Just one in four respondents provide BI tools to more than a quarter of the workforce, the same level as last year's survey.

Another problem is that too much work must go into customizing BI tools for specific types of users, said Mark Smith, president of Ventana Research, in an interview. That's created a growing number of small vendors who offer BI tools for specific job roles, such as what AIM Technology and Merced Systems offer for call centers.

Still, there are a growing number of instances where business intelligence is moving beyond the desks of financial analysts and IT pros to include salespeople, marketing employees, and customer call-center reps. The key is to toss aside that "pervasive" word vendors love so much and recognize BI can offer real value in other types of job roles, as long as how it can be used -- or misused -- is carefully considered.

About 50 marketing people at StubHub, an online marketplace for buyers and sellers of events tickets bought by eBay for $310 million in January, 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 place advertising, for example.

But Rob Singer, StubHub's director of business intelligence, is no fool. Marketers build these customized reports using a simple drag-and-drop function based on reports Singer's team has already developed. "My team does the real intricate analysis work," he said in an interview. "What we didn't want is people generating reports from scratch that could be wrong or misleading."

Salespeople and sales managers are constantly grappling with results and goals, so business intelligence makes sense there, too. Business Objects released last week BusinessObjects Mobile, software that salespeople and other on-the-go professionals can use to view BI reports on company servers from their handheld devices and, if authorized, make changes to them. Competitor Cognos introduced similar software last September. About 40% of users of Business Objects On Demand BI, the company's software-as-a-service offering, also are users of Salesforce.com's salesforce automation software, which shows the growing use of BI among salespeople, Business Objects VP Steven Lucas said in an interview. In the InformationWeek survey, while just 13% of respondents say they're making BI available to users with mobile devices, another third plan to provide mobile access in the next two years.

The vendor also announced Business Objects XI Release 2 Productivity Pack, which for the first time lets customers publish BI queries as a Web service. That's going to make it easier for companies to let users make queries within all sorts of applications as in-house developers won't have to write custom code, said company VP Juliette Sultan in an interview. Another new product, Xcelsius Enterprise, draws upon the capability of Release 2 Productivity Pack to provide users with personalized BI dashboards within Microsoft Office applications.

Microsoft has been doing its own work in this area. With Office 2007, shipped last November, companies can build BI reports within Excel from data stored on a networked sales database, for example. SharePoint 2007 also has BI capabilities.

At it's BI conference next week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Jeff Raikes, president of the business division, will emphasize the company's commitment to BI and announce new partnerships and product plans, said Chris Caren, general manager of business applications at Microsoft, in an interview. This summer, Microsoft plans to introduce Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, a server application from which business users can create scorecards, budgets, forecasts, and reports. "BI reaches, at most, 10% of information workers," Caren said. "We see a huge ability to drive much broader usage. Ten times that amount is a reasonable goal for us."

We've heard that one before. Pervasive is more than what most companies want, but BI is starting to make a difference in job roles where it hasn't been before.

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