In 1979, Dan Bricklin was a young student working on his Master of Business Administration degree at Harvard Business School when he had a vision for a software application that could put the power of the computer into the hands of business users. Working over a weekend on a borrowed Apple II computer, Bricklin developed his first prototype of VisiCalc - an electronic spreadsheet that would revolutionize the software industry - and ignited the nascent personal computer industry.


At the time, all business computing was relegated to mainframes and minicomputers housed in the IT department and ruled by the “high priests” of that technology. IT had a host of tools available for creating applications, but because of their huge cost and lengthy time for development, only the highest-value business applications were worthy of consideration. Although business professionals further down in the hierarchy were eyeing the new personal computers as a way to solve some of their departmental problems without involving IT, there was precious little software available that was practical, useful and reliable.


VisiCalc changed all that. After a sneak peek of VisiCalc in mid-1979, Ben Rosen, one of the major players in the PC world who later went on to fund Lotus and Compaq, called VisiCalc “a new concept in software that could well go a long way toward fulfilling [the] needs of professionals and alleviating their frustrations.”1 Rosen marveled at how people who had never used a computer before could write and use programs in minutes with VisiCalc. While Rosen acknowledged the software’s limitations (it lacked transcendental functions, for example), he recognized how VisiCalc “does lend itself to the solution of a broad class of problems where interactive operation and lots of flexibility are desired.”2


Nearly 30 years later, not much has changed. Department managers are still relying on their electronic spreadsheets - descendents of the original VisiCalc - to analyze business process data. Today, analytics and business intelligence (BI) systems are mostly restricted to the realm of the IT department and still ruled by the high priests of this technology, the trained data analysts. Although IT has a huge array of BI tools at their disposal, BI systems primarily serve the needs of senior management because of the huge cost and lengthy time for development. Department managers and other business professionals are eyeing BI as a way of solving some of their departments’ problems, but most software available is still too hard to use, too costly and takes too long to implement.


Before VisiCalc, people only had tools they could use to build applications. It required specialized expertise, time and money to create applications people could use. Analytics and BI today are in a similar place, but a new breed of role-based BI applications are about to change all that by bringing the value of analytics into the context of someone’s job.


BI represents a $50+ billion global market, but the penetration of BI systems across the enterprise is stuck in the 20 percent range, leaving around 80 percent of people in companies unable to utilize BI.3,4 Because of its complexity and cost, BI has been limited to use by knowledge workers and the IT department - the people who are trained in the use of analytic tools and proactively applying them to perform analyses.


Instead of analytic tools, role-based BI harnesses the power of analytics to deliver applications anyone can use without any specialized knowledge or training. By focusing on specific roles, these BI applications can anticipate exactly what data the user needs and how to package it to make it most valuable and easy to consume. When combined with the Web-enabled technology of on-demand delivery (software as a service or SaaS), role-based BI applications can begin to deliver value in a day instead of months or years.


This point became clear to me recently when I visited my new wireless carrier’s local retail outlet. I was about to take a trip abroad and needed to upgrade to a new handset that would work overseas as well as at home. As the salesperson handling the changeover entered the data for my new account, I noticed two small rows of dots at the bottom of the screen labeled “churn” and “revenue,” and I immediately realized that this was a perfect example of the value of analytics embedded into the middle of a business workflow.


Those two rows of dots provided the salesperson with an indication of my potential value, which in turn would affect how the salesperson was going to interact with me. Using this simple display, the account management system was indicating how likely I am to remain a customer over time and what my value (in revenue) is worth to the company. It was also letting the salesperson decide whether to quickly sign me up and get rid of me or spend more time trying to sell me additional services. This is truly actionable information.


Unlike traditional BI, which is inherently passive and requires the user to dig for the information he or she thinks might be needed, role-based BI anticipates the information needs of the user by leveraging domain-awareness. Clearly, business users don’t want data exploration tools; what they need are information solutions.


As illustrated by the two rows of dots, role-based BI puts the information right in front of you without requiring you to ask for it or even know what analytics is. The system already knows what you want and gives it to you in context, while all the analytical work is automatically being performed behind the scenes.


One of the business processes ripest for this kind of help is sales pipeline management. According to CSO Insights, a research firm that focuses on the effectiveness of sales and marketing organizations, the sales function within a company has an average annual turnover rate of 27 percent, more than any other function.5 Also, an average of 39 percent or more of sales representatives do not make their quotas.6 You’d be hard-pressed to name any other function where the average employee is failing against the number-one metric they’re being measured against.


A typical sales manager’s Sunday afternoon and evening is spent putting data together for the Monday morning sales meeting. Data is extracted from the customer relationship management (CRM) system into an Excel spreadsheet and compared against another spreadsheet containing similar data from the previous week to try to answer several questions:

  • What’s changed?
  • Where is the team today versus last week?
  • Where does the team need help?
  • Which deals need to be looked at more closely?
  • Will the team make its number?

This “stare-and-compare” method is common practice among companies of every size. The problem is, it’s error-prone, labor-intensive and comes at a high opportunity cost – family and personal time.


I’ve managed sales teams for more than 10 years and I assure you that most sales meetings are a painful waste of time. The sales manager is trying to figure out what happened between this meeting and the last one, get a handle on which sales opportunities are stuck and which are moving forward quickly and determine who needs help and what’s at risk. At the same time, representatives are trying to position their business and manage expectations - read spin. Remember, the very skills you looked for in these people when the sales manager hired them create an environment that makes it difficult to get clear visibility to the business. The manager can easily wind up spending three or four hours just listening to them dance around the issues. Much time is spent trying to get to what really matters in sales meetings - what’s happening in the deals, what’s changing and what’s being done to advance the cycles. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to have a list of the things that have changed since the last time you met automatically sent to you just before the meeting, so you don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what you need to talk about? It’s no wonder then that a recent McKinsey & Co. study stated that organizations that proactively manage their pipelines rather than just reporting on the state of the pipeline could see a two to 10 percent lift in their revenue by changing nothing else in the business.7


With an on-demand, role-based BI system in place, a sales manager can receive a weekly email message containing a spreadsheet generated by the system. The manager might also have an online version that lets him or her run the meetings from within the BI application, enabling the sales manager to navigate person to person, team to team and deal to deal with visual cues for trends and alerts, which significantly reduces the amount of time needed to complete a weekly sales meeting.


The critical point underlying all of this is the way role-based BI essentially turns traditional BI on its head. With role-based BI, the right information is automatically pushed out to the right people at the right time, based on the work they are doing. It’s more than simple notification, it’s an awareness of the domain packaged with important context when they need it. Employees intuitively understand the importance and usefulness of the information the system provides and can manipulate it as they see fit. Best of all, the familiar Web-based, point-and-click operation means they don’t have to know anything about analytics or about how analytical tools or report generators work. They don’t need additional training or the IT department to implement or maintain it.


I’ve spoken to many companies over the past year that have experienced first-hand the benefits of role-based BI and there are three key themes: increased sales pipeline conversion rates, a steady increase in revenue and higher CRM adoption rates on the front lines.


For sales teams, role-based BI systems encourage proactive, dynamic pipeline management. The most effective role-based BI systems send automatic alerts to mobile devices with information on when particular deals are off track, according to a top performer benchmark. These systems determine ahead of time what top performers look like in terms of the sales cycle for a particular type of deal. Then, every similar new deal that comes into the system will automatically get tagged with a variance notification that continually compares it to the top performer benchmark. When one of these deals starts to falter, the role-based BI system fires off an alert. The system might even offer recommendations on what to do to get the faltering deal back on track.


The same kind of alert could be applied to any business process where performance can be judged against a best practice and where detecting variance conditions from that best practice and notifying the individual concerned with it – really just a little bit of information exactly when it’s needed – can enhance job performance. This is true anywhere in an organization.


Role-based BI sits on top of the business process, offering an analysis of the business process data over time, comparing it to best practices and other standards of performance that have already been established. It notifies the appropriate individuals about any variance from best practices in time for them to be able to make adjustments to correct the problem.


This is very different from business process workflow alerts, which provide information about specific events such as a manufacturing machine malfunctioning or a sales deal moving from one stage to the next. Workflow alerts tell you where you are. Variance alerts tell you ahead of time that you’re not going to be where you want to be unless you fix something.


The holy grail for middle management is to identify and share best practices and get average performers to apply them to make the entire team better. Role-based BI provides a framework for implementing this, because it’s preconfigured with an awareness of best practices and makes them available to everyone. Just as VisiCalc reshaped the personal computing industry, role-based BI delivered as a service to business users is nothing short of revolutionary, giving any business user complete power to buy, use and get value from applications that deliver a competitive business advantage.



  1. Daniel Bricklin. "Ben Rosen's Reaction,", 2003. 
  2. Bricklin.
  3. John Hagerty and Jennifer Hackbush. “The Business Intelligence and Performance Management Spending Report, 2008-2009: Inside the $57.1B Market,” AMR Research, May 2008.
  4. Andrew K. Burger. “The BI Boom Part 2: New Twists,” CRMBuyer, April 2008.
  5. Jim Dickie and Barry Trailer. “Sales Performance Optimization 2008 Survey Results and Analysis,” CSO Insights, 2008.
  6. Dickie and Trailer.
  7. Anupam Agarwal. “Keeping Pipeline Insights Actionable,” destinationCRM, October 2007.

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