It is interesting and a little confounding that so many stories are written about BI for the masses and the democratization of information, yet never mention the consumer in the same breath as the information worker.

There is a certain irony in this. We've bemoaned the fact that organizations lag consumers in their goals of uncovering information; last year we cited an Accenture report that pointed out that executives found it easier to find information on competitors than on their own companies.

Yet for all the gains that are made internally in information dissemination, little thought is given to turning some of the same information back to the public outside of certain marketing and product information. If self-service is the future of information in the organization (as has been made clear in the consumer world), then building a wall around non-proprietary information sounds like an inefficient idea.

Sure, there is plenty of data on customers and transactions and other areas that need to be kept off limits to the general public and we're not talking about disseminating sales reports. But as I recently found to be true, why do you need to go through GE's call center to find the part number for a new handle for your refrigerator? Why did I need that expensive customer rep to enunciate the number and price that was sitting before her eyes?

No, a part number is not business intelligence; but configuration, price, availability, shipping and expediting options allowed me to make a better decision, which pretty much defines what business intelligence is. The whole e-catalog business that sprung up in the 1990s (and still struggles apparently) has been replicated in detail across product and other records that aren't geared to public consumption in any form.

Gartner Dataquest recently noted that "BI is becoming an imperative -- from the chief corporate officer level to the operational shop floors, and all the layers in between, leading to more BI seats being used." It added that the "consumerization of information" will "enable a spread of BI across organizations" and that "emerging technologies, such as BI integrated search, promise increased usability that will drive user adoption in coming years." For now at least, Gartner's view of "consumerization" doesn't include the consumer.

I'd say that is going to change bit by bit. We noted in an earlier newsletter how media companies like Fox Sports are turning their Web analytic findings back to consumers. The value of "most emailed stories" is not only a boon to New York Times Web analysts. It is a hugely-valuable traffic generator when exposed to the public. Likewise, the state-by-state polling results provided by ESPN.com give better visibility to the argument over whether Ohio State is really better than Florida State when it comes to football.

If none of this seems geared to sales, consider propensity scores: Customers who bought "X" also bought "Y." Advanced Web sellers such as Amazon already operate this way; why not a telecommunications or financial services firm? Why not let the customer in on what you're going to try to sell them anyway? When certain internal and external information undertakings are thought of as the same thing, it not only kills two birds with one stone; it builds synergies in efficiency, consensus and visibility.

Just today I was interviewing Chip Reeves, director of marketing and sales process at Dow Corning for an upcoming case study. Sure enough, Dow Corning considers the customer quest for information just as important as the internal quest. And for Dow Corning, the future of business is clearly moving to self-service, and so guided search and extensive taxonomy work have been big priorities at the company. " The outside perspective is largely looking at the ways the customer interacts with us," Reeves told me. "The inside part of the equation is the operational excellence we are trying to build across our sales force and in support of our distributor efforts," but a lot of this involves the very same information as he explained it. Dow Corning is offering live chat help, vertically oriented Web events and online bulletin boards not only for consumers, but for direct and indirect sales and marketing reps. Is it a cube or a report? No. Is it useful pieces of information combined in constructive ways that assist in a decision? Clearly.

Something in my chat with Chip Reeves sounded familiar and looking back I found a story I had written five years ago about computer security specialist Network Associates' efforts to build a service portal for both internal and external use. The project was to create a time-sensitive, unified knowledge platform for customers with a blend of channels and global resources, the same search and database materials used by the technicians they'd otherwise need to be talking to on the phone.

I never did circle back to find out how that worked out, but it's coming clear that with the new sizzle of the search box, portals along with back end information management are coming back in ways that are of common value to information workers and consumers. Both want self-service and at some point it will no longer be practical to segregate non-sensitive information quests.

In a sense, businesses like Dow Corning are coming full circle, from the rise of corporate infrastructure and the quest for information to match the consumer standard, to take what's been developed internally and turn it back to the consumer. In business, much of the information value add has traditionally come from distributors and resellers, but just like the information worker, consumers are going to demand self-service. Withholding the same information you'd eventually look up and tell them over the phone is just as likely to send them elsewhere.

We are looking forward to the launch of a new and more interactive BI Review Web site in the next four to six weeks. In the meantime, please send your comments and suggestions to jim.ericson@sourcemedia.com.

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