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Doug Henschen
Doug Henschen
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5 Resolutions For Better BI in 2012

Make business intelligence easy to use, deploy, afford, administer and embed.

"Pervasive BI" has been a much talked-about goal for business intelligence vendors and practitioners alike for more than five years. The idea was that BI tools weren't being deployed and used widely enough to promote fact-based decision making. As I see it, it's time to give up the dream of pervasive BI and move on to a better goal.

The pervasive BI push was tied to research that showed that BI adoption rates were stuck at about 25% -- meaning that at companies using BI, on average only about a quarter of employees actually had access to the tools and interfaces. Some vendors, notably Microsoft, blamed rival's expensive and hard-to-use tools. Others blamed practitioners and their cultures; if only these firms would form BI centers of excellence and get the tools into the hands of more employees, users would naturally give up on reflexive, gut-feel decision making and rely instead on the numbers. From numbers-driven decisions, better outcomes would naturally flow.

Our just released InformationWeek "2012 BI and Information Management Trends Report" shows that the quest for pervasive BI remains elusive as ever. (You can download this report for free if you're a registered user of -- and if you're not yet registered, you can do so at no charge.) Likewise, Cindi Howson's recent Successful BI report shows adoption rates remain stuck at around 25%.

[ Want more on business intelligence? Read More BI Packages Add Collaboration: Who Needs It?. ]

As I see it, low adoption rates are a symptom of the underlying problem that too many BI products are too complicated, expensive and separated from actual work to become a part of day-to-day decision making. In fact, I'm increasingly convinced that pervasive BI is a vendor licensing pipedream, and that BI and analytic tools and interfaces alone won't get us to better outcomes. Instead of worrying about adoption rates (just one possible measure of success), I propose five keep-it-simple resolutions to focus on BI software usability, manageability, and deployment approaches:

Make sure it's easy to use. Complexity has long been among the top complaints about BI software, and it's still right up there. When presented with 15 possible answers to the question "what are the barriers to adopting BI products enterprisewide?," 45% of respondents cite "ease-of-use challenges with complex software/less technically savvy employees." The choice is a close second to "data quality problems," an information management challenge cited by 46% of respondents.

Next year I'll strike the "less technically savvy employees" part of that response. If the iPhone, iPad and many smartphone and tablet apps have taught us anything, it's that very sophisticated software can also be made to be easy to use. Going forward, "poor user training" should not be an excuse for low software adoption rates or failed pilot projects. If prospective users can't begin to make sense of unfamiliar interfaces without training, let that be your first warning sign that the software is too complicated.

If you're already invested in a product that new users find hard to use, it's up to your developers to come up with simplified dashboards or interfaces that can deliver meaningful insights in an easily digestible way.

Make sure it's easy to deploy. Asked to cite the most important features to look for when purchasing a BI product or selecting a vendor, 63% select "ease of implementation" as the top choice among 13 possible answers. It's pretty amazing that a deployment characteristic outclassed usability criteria such as "fast data exploration, query and analysis capabilities." I'm guessing that more than a few of these respondents have been badly burned by BI deployments or upgrades gone wrong.

How can you ensure that a BI product is easy to deploy? Start by insisting on multiple references, and be sure to talk to the people who were involved in deployments of the product and version you're vetting. If you're an existing customer considering an upgrade, it's easy enough to check out what fellow customers are saying in user group forums. In fact, many online and social-network forums are operated by independent user groups, and you're even more likely to hear the unvarnished truth there.

Make sure it's affordable. The response "software licenses are too expensive" actually placed sixth on list of barriers to enterprisewide BI deployments, so cost isn't everything. But as shown in the chart below excerpted from the "2012 BI and Information Management Trends Report," our respondents cite Microsoft as the most widely used BI software supplier by far, tapped by 46% of respondents, planned for use by an additional 7%, and being evaluated by another 15%. That's no surprise given that Microsoft includes its BI software as part of other products, which tells me that affordability matters more than people might let on.

BI/Analytics Vendors

To clarify, Microsoft BI is by no means free in that you have to have enterprise licenses of Microsoft Office, Microsoft SQL Server, and Microsoft SharePoint. But those licenses give them access to Reporting Services, Integration Services and Analysis Services delivered through SQL Server, Office Excel as an all-purpose interface for crunching and visualizing data, and SharePoint as a place to publish and collaborate on analyses. That's Microsoft BI, and the bundling strategy has catapulted the company to the top of the BI heap (in terms of numbers of users) in little more than five years. (IDC ranks Microsoft fifth in terms of BI software license revenue through a mysterious calculation method I've stopped trying to understand.)

Many find Microsoft BI to be more like a developer's toolkit than what they want in a BI suite, since it's up to developers to build out query, reporting and application interfaces that other suites include. So needs vary and one size definitely does not fit all, but Microsoft's success shows cost matters. Want more proof? When we asked about factors driving interest in software-as-a-service/cloud-computing-based BI/analytics," the number-one answer (cited by 55%) is "low overall cost" and the number three answer (cited by 39%) is "low initial cost."

Make sure it's easy to administer. "Self-service BI" and improvements in systems admin and management have been familiar themes in plenty of recent BI product upgrades, but there are signs vendors haven't done enough. "Minimal need for IT staff/support" draws the second highest response (cited by 46% of respondents) on the list of factors driving interest in SaaS/cloud-based BI. What's more, the hegemony of corporate-standard BI appears to be slipping, with only 41% of this year's respondents agreeing that their firms have standardized on "one or a few products," down from 47% last year. That hints that departments and line-of-business units aren't waiting for IT. Instead they're embracing fleet-footed alternatives including SaaS services and hosted solutions that require minimal IT support.

[ Want more on business intelligence? Read More BI Packages Add Collaboration: Who Needs It?. ]

Here again, an ounce of research before you buy could save you a pound of support burden. Reference customers can tell you about IT staff requirements and the time and effort required to develop and deploy new applications, dashboards and reporst. You'll want to know for sure just how much self is in those self-service capabilities.

Make sure it's embeddable. It's important to remember that BI emerged as a separate category in the '80s and '90s only because the reporting and analysis capabilities built into applications were so inadequate. Separate warehouses and analytical processing power also kept mission-critical transactional systems from browning out under the added burden of analytical loads.

Times are changing, processing power is now dirt cheap, and applications vendors are increasingly embedding BI into their software. SAP is even talking about doing away with the separation between BI and apps with the aid of in-memory technology. With this move, BI blends back into the application domain.

Yes, companies tend to have many applications and data sources that might beg for an independent BI platform. Even so, organizations are looking to embed dashboards, key performance indicators and other forms or decision-support directly into their business applications and workflows. Our survey respondents rank "exception management" second and "embedded BI" fourth on a list of 11 leading-edge BI capabilities. Exception management means spotting problem transactions, workflow bottlenecks or emerging risk, so it's as much about blending of BI/analytics and applications as is embedded BI.

To support embedded BI, look for rich BI/analytics services capabilities and event-aware integration capabilities. An event might be the initiation or completion of an order, an alert that a process is taking longer than expected or a trigger when inventories have reached a critical threshold. These are capabilities that Microsoft, Oracle and SAP in particular have talked up because they bridge the gap between applications and BI.

Measure Based On Business Results.

It's time to stop measuring BI success by the seat. BI started out as a Band-Aid, and there's no reason it should be enshrined as something everybody must aspire to use. Decision support should be delivered in the context of the decision, and that might be within an enterprise application, an email inbox, a process workflow, a well-integrated dashboard, a collaborative interface, a mobile interface or even a social network interaction.

The ultimate measure of BI success is not how many people touch it, but to what degree it optimizes stocking, ordering, fulfillment, sales forecasting, days sales outstanding, financial planning, customer satisfaction and so on. Business value delivered is the difference between BI success and failure.

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