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Accelerate the Trend: Make BI Pervasive

  • January 19 2006, 1:00am EST

With the new year upon us, now is a good time to take stock of where the industry has been and where it's going. The never-ending crises of the workday often force us to spend all our time avoiding crashing into trees - rather than stepping back and noticing the evolving nature of the forest.

The business intelligence environment has changed. Fifteen years ago - when BI was in its infancy and data warehousing was just catching on - simply generating an overview report of the business was a major victory. Today, data warehouses and data marts are common, every knowledge worker has a Pentium-class PC on their desk, and mechanisms such as enterprise reporting, online analytical processing (OLAP) and dashboards quickly alert us to changes in the business.

Business Intelligence is Still Not Enterprise Wide

With BI a standard part of corporate life, what more is there to do? Actually, quite a lot. While BI seems to be everywhere to the BI practitioner, it isn't that pervasive within the business. While estimates vary, it's safe to say that only 10 to 20 percent of an enterprise's workforce regularly uses a BI tool. This isn't a terrible state of affairs - due to the nature of their tasks and the limited data that they need, many employees shouldn't have to learn a complex reporting application. Nevertheless, all companies can do a much better job of distributing 1) the relevant snippet of information 2) in a timely fashion 3) to the correct person 4) within an application they're comfortable with.

Put another way, BI is still the province of technicians. However, if history is any guide, BI will increasingly be absorbed into the workday. For example, once the automobile reached a certain level of dependability and was available at a relatively low cost (thank you, Henry Ford), the U.S. created a network of roads and gas stations that made the car not a rich man's toy but rather an indispensable part of American life. While we're still far away from that level of integration, BI is on its way to becoming pervasive. Some of the signposts are:

PCs are Everywhere, Disk is Cheap and Data is Plentiful

Fifteen years ago, if a manager worked at an enlightened company, he or she had a PC and could tap into online operational reports. Everyone else used paper reports. Today, virtually everyone has a PC on their desk and - depending on their role - can access real-time reports and run custom queries. Furthermore, because disk space is so inexpensive and so many parts of the business can be monitored, companies have a lot to analyze. Mechanisms such as point-of-sale (POS) terminals, Web site logs and RFID chips generate gigabytes of information about products and customers which businesses can store for years and continually mine for insight.

Reporting Tools Increasingly Work with Microsoft Office

After years of ranting and raving about Microsoft Excel and how it isn't really a full-powered analytic tool, the BI vendors have finally given in and now work with Excel and other components of the Microsoft Office suite. They've finally realized that workers live in Microsoft Office all day - and if they want to deliver information to those employees, they need to peacefully coexist with that ubiquitous interface. By making their BI backend a data server to Excel, vendors such as Business Objects and SAS have made a huge leap in expanding BI's reach.

Things You Can Do

In short, while BI continues to be a greater part of enterprise life, you can give it a shove in multiple ways. There are two sets of dynamics at work here. First, sending out relevant information to the appropriate people is relatively easy - certainly easier than implementing a data warehouse, for example. Think of it: You've gone to all this work and have all this great information sitting in a repository somewhere, but employees aren't leveraging it because they don't know what's available. Go the last mile and receive kudos for all the work you've done.

Second, employees today don't want to expend a lot of effort gathering information. They expect a high-quality experience with very little effort on their part. After all, Apple has been able to sell 35 million iPods because people want to listen to their choice of music whenever they want. iRobot has sold many Roomba robot vacuum cleaners, allowing 1.2 million people to clean their floors without pushing a vacuum.

With that as a backdrop, here are some things you can do to extend the reach of BI:

Leverage Tools in the Packages. Most BI tools today ship with many notification mechanisms: alerts, emailed links to reports and dashboards, for example. Are you using these tools to their full potential? If not, with a little incremental work, you can expand the audience for your data significantly.

Deliver Information to the Desktop or Handheld. Another option is to send the data to the user. Yahoo! offers something called Yahoo! Widgets, a JavaScript runtime engine that runs widgets that appear on a Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X desktop. These widgets can display pictures (e.g., traffic Webcams), information (e.g., the outside temperature) or data streams (e.g., RSS feeds). Rather than inventing your own alerting and display mechanism, use the Yahoo! Widget specification to build your own.

If you have users who feel the desktop isn't mobile enough, deliver information to their handhelds. iAnywhere, a subsidiary of Sybase, offers a platform for mobile applications. (In fact, if you own a handheld, you may already be familiar with iAnywhere's AvantGo service, which downloads content from news, weather and flight services to handhelds for free.) Leveraging the iAnywhere platform may make delivery of breaking information to corporate handhelds easier than you thought.

Be Creative! When all is said and done, be creative! I'm sure someone out there is already figuring out how to deliver a video of their sales vice president's speech at the achievers conference to the latest iPod. You've worked hard to create a BI environment within your company - make sure it's used to the fullest.

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