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2/17/2004
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Finding The Key Selling Point

Promoting business intelligence means discussing the technology as a complete whole.

The category of business intelligence can be a tough sell. That's because business intelligence is a notion,not a product. The concept: to feed consistent, reliable data throughout an organization so practically anyone can make strategic decisions at realtime speed. The problem with this simple idea is that it involves a host of complex, interrelated technologies that must be uniquely strung together for each customer.

At the core, these technologies include data transformation software (from Informatica and Ascential, for example), data cleansing software from the likes of DataFlux or Trillium Software, relational databases for building data warehouses, and a variety of front-end applications for reporting and analysis. Don't go looking for a single off-the-shelf business intelligence application in that mix. It doesn't exist.

 
>> The trick in prompting business intelligence lies in discussing the technology as a complete whole.

 
That absence explains the recent fever among business intelligence vendors to build,or buy,reporting and analysis tools that complement their existing application suites. In the past 18 months, Business Objects bought Crystal Decisions; Hyperion acquired Brio; Cognos subsumed Adaytum; and Informatica took over Striva. Even companies that haven't gone on a buying spree, such as Actuate, have systematically expanded their platforms.

Their aim is to give customers a one-stop shop for all of their intelligence gathering, analyzing and distribution needs. And oh, yes, all of these application vendors also hope to sell their software to as many seats in an enterprise as possible. The path to that goal is via easier-to-use analysis and reporting tools for nearly every level of an organization.

"The industry consolidation is good in that it could help streamline customers' decision-making processes," said John Martin, CEO of TriWise Solutions, a systems integrator in Carlsbad, Calif.

That's the aim. But Martin and other systems integrators say this message of business intelligence "democratization" does not yet resonate with clients. Instead, they say large and midsize companies care more about transforming inconsistent data into useful information. "At the end of the day, everything is worthless if customers can't get to accurate data, and if the data doesn't roll up," said Martin.

And therein lies the difficulty with selling business intelligence solutions. Business intelligence can't deliver on its promises without first providing clean, consistent data. And that, everyone agrees, is an issue of infrastructure.

Selling business intelligence means promoting decidedly unsexy tools, such as data warehouses, that become the foundations for the reporting and analysis capabilities offered by business intelligence vendors. Only then can the channel talk about executive dashboards and scorecards, which present charts and graphs that show how a company is performing against specified business metrics, such as operating margins.

"Data warehousing, if successful, is like an addictive drug," said Tom Burzinski, business intelligence practice manager at consulting firm Greenbrier & Russel, Schaumburg, Ill. "I've never seen a client that doesn't say it wants more."

In fact, virtually everyone building business intelligence solutions agrees with that assessment. For those in the trenches, opening the discussion with front-end applications from, say Business Objects or Cognos, is putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

"We definitely see a big move [for dashboards] among midsize companies," said Majid Abai, president and CTO of Seena Technologies, a BI-focused systems integrator in Santa Monica, Calif. "Unfortunately, starting with a dashboard is like starting from the faucet and going backwards. BI is really nothing but plumbing."

But how to sell a business intelligence solution when the discussion revolves around data warehouses and reliable data rather than more-readily understood charts and graphs? The trick lies, solution providers say, in discussing business intelligence as a complete whole,not in what users see on their screens.

"Are dashboards and scorecards being deployed? Yes. Are they rampant in organizations? No they are not," said Brian Queenin, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young's vice president and global practice leader of business intelligence and information management. "You won't see an RFP [request for proposal] to put in a dashboard, but you will find those applications as part of a pre-configured solution that solves a problem. Yes, you can find a CEO who's wowed by the bells and whistles. But at the end of the day, you have to solve deep-rooted business problems."

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