The Road To Making BI Available To Everyone - InformationWeek

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2/21/2008
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The Road To Making BI Available To Everyone

For BI to go mainstream, it will take a lot of creative thinking and collaboration between the business and IT.

Widespread use of business intelligence applications and tools has been the rallying cry of BI vendors for more than a decade, and yet we're nowhere close to making that a reality.

On average, only 25% of workers use BI, according to a survey of 513 companies that I did with Intelligent Enterprise for my book, Successful Business Intelligence. The tools themselves are partially to blame for lackluster adoption, along with company cultures that encourage gut-feel decision making, allow information hoarding, or let IT departments keep data locked away. Blame also rests with a failure to convey the value of BI to business execs, some of whom are confused about how it differs from the ERP system reports and manual spreadsheets they use now.

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Yet some companies are finding ways to use BI to better understand and reap value from data to deliver best-in-class service, boost revenue, and increase operating efficiencies. BI is pervasive at these companies, used not only by business analysts, but also by front-line employees and even customers and suppliers.

For BI to be used by more employees and by employees in a wider range of job types within a company, several roads must converge. First, businesses have to fully appreciate the gold mine of data they're amassing. Vendors need to provide lower-cost ways to license and deploy BI. And, while only a small segment of employees need to be business intelligence experts, BI interfaces have to let data be presented in a multitude of ways in whatever interface is optimal and most familiar. However, pervasive BI requires more than technology innovations; it demands information be relevant and aligned with users' motivations and incentives. It's up to the business and IT to work together more closely to make that happen.

Smarter, Better, Faster

BI makes companies smarter, better, and faster. This kind of value-add requires a proactive approach, but, with the frenetic pace at many companies, such opportunities get overlooked or are seen as optional. A mail-order business may grind to a halt if the order-entry system crashes, but not if BI fails. This is where competitive forces are driving BI. In an era when customers can get product information online, finding ways to provide better service and lower prices is the key to survival. BI enables this.

Many companies deploy BI tools predominantly to business analysts and power users. 1-800 Contacts, the world's largest supplier of mail-order contact lenses, is an exception. It began its BI initiative with front-line workers, call center agents who directly influence sales; now more than 60% of its employees use BI.

1-800 Contacts faces stiff competition from the eye doctors who write the contact lens prescriptions it relies on for business, so the company's service and price has to be better than that of the prescribers. That's where BI comes in: A call center dashboard lets agents see what a customer has ordered in the past, recommend complementary products, and predict when the customer will need to reorder. Agents also can track their own performance on the dashboard.

Agents were "clamoring for information," says Dave Walker, VP of operations, and what they complained about most was having "to wait until the next morning to look at a piece of paper taped to the wall to see how they were performing." The week the dashboard went live, the company saw an immediate lift in sales, says senior analyst Christopher Coon.

For BI to become pervasive, companies must first see data as a strategic asset to be exploited. This requires a mix of vision, faith, and creativity. There are signs that BI is becoming a must-have business tool that's no longer strictly optional. The spate of recent vendor acquisitions--Oracle-Hyperion, SAP-Business Objects, and IBM-Cognos--as well as Microsoft's new PerformancePoint offering reflect BI's increasingly strategic importance.

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