The business intelligence (BI) literature is increasingly using the terms "adaptive" and "agile" in selling products or evangelizing methodologies. Yet, there is little discussion of the distinctions between these terms, which I believe are central to active BI.

The world is complex and constantly changing. If you agree, there is an important implication. The success of a BI system is determined by its effectiveness to analyze that complexity and adapt business processes to those changes.

As BI professionals, we are becoming adept at the analysis part. However, as our analysis capabilities have increased, it has become more difficult to adapt that capability to changes. It is not just a technology issue. Organizational culture and personal motivations are increasingly the limiting factors.

To explore this issue, consider the following cases.

Case #1: At 10:00 a.m. on August 1 in the shipping department, George realizes that adding a new column and sorting the data on this column will enable him to improve shipping time. George asks Nancy in the IT department to make the necessary changes to his report. Nancy tells George to submit IT change form #234 for consideration by the IT steering committee and informs George that, if approved, such changes are taking six to eight months to complete.

This is a classical IT situation of 20 years ago. Is this BI system adaptive? It was somewhat adaptive in the context of that time. It is possible to make changes to the system, and the responsiveness was tolerated within that context. However, a delay of six to eight months would certainly not be acceptable by today's businesses.

Case #2: At 10:00 a.m. on August 1, George asks Nancy, an IT developer assigned to the shipping department, for changes to his report. At 10:30 a.m., Nancy walks into George's cubicle and asks him to try a new version of his report. Following a few adjustments, George is happily using the new report by 11:30 a.m.

This is a much better outcome. However, the situation has not fundamentally changed. Yes, the responsiveness has decreased from six months to 90 minutes. We can certainly say that the system is much more "adaptable." However, Nancy is still in the loop. George is dependent upon Nancy to affect the change to his report. If Nancy is sick, responsiveness significantly declines.

Case #3: At 10:00 a.m. on August 1, George realizes that certain changes to his report would allow him to improve shipping time. After learning to use a new configuration parameter in the reporting tool and playing with a few alternatives, George is happily using the new version by 12:00 p.m.

Which case is better? Is Case #2 better because the change was made in 90 minutes instead of 120 minutes? Or, is it Case #3 because the change did not depend upon a third person?

Here lies the distinction between adaptive and agile. Adaptive is how responsive the system is to change. Agile is how easily the system can be changed by itself. They are two independent ways of characterizing a system.

In other words, adaptability involves changes to the system, and agility involves changes by the system. Agile implies that there is no third party who performs magical acts behind the curtain but that enhancements to system functions occur as part of normal usage.

Case #4: At 10:00 a.m. on August 1, the system suggests to George a new report format based upon the best practice for improving shipping time. The suggestion was automatically initiated based on his past usage behavior because George had attempted to add fields that analyzed average shipping times for key shippers to certain regions. Further, similar shipping practices in other divisions had already evolved to this new report. George reviewed the new report and accepted it as part of his default version by 10:10 a.m.

This is an adaptive and agile system! The changes are performed quickly. More importantly, the changes are performed by the system as part of its normal interaction with the user. The requirement is that the BI systems should drive business process improvement by customizing the information flow and analytics to those changed processes.

The principle is that active BI requires agile systems. It is not sufficient to just be highly adaptive. It is necessary to be highly agile so that normal system usage will allow changes to occur, thus evolving the system through incremental improvement in best business practices of its users.

In my previous column, we discussed the challenge of reducing "action distance" to make BI systems more "actionable." Agile systems enable this by evolving the information set closer to the required action set. In other words, users can tailor their analytics to new business situations, thus pioneering new business practices.

Every day, our businesses are molded by thousands of operational necessities. We get the job done, muddling through with as little hassle as possible. Every day, we reinvent the wheel, improvising some new business practice to untangle the immediate crises, only to do it all again the following day.

Wouldn't it be nice to have adaptive and agile systems so that our business processes of tomorrow could be a little better than they were today?

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