San Francisco -- Productivity, compliance and alignment are at the fore of issues making business intelligence a top priority in organizations today, according to Ventana Research SVP of research Mark Smith. Smith made his remarks in a keynote address at this week's BI Forum 2006 in San Francisco, sponsored by BI Review.While the top-line issues identified are not surprising to those who work in the BI field, Smith used recent Ventana findings, solicited in part from readers of DM Review and BI Review, to support several sub-textual drivers facing the industry, including efficiency, risk and organizational effectiveness. Among the hot spots of technology and BI strategy are: data latency and the need for timely information, contextual information that needs to address prior and proceeding workflows (cause/effect), and information that is actionable and allows users to perform next steps and prioritize action.

Smith commented on the use of a variety of sanctioned standard and ad hoc technologies that are used in ways that are unequally pervasive, expected and unexpected: among the wild cards are user-embraced productivity tools in Microsoft Office; advances in enterprise application, desktop and Web-based productivity and analysis tools; and IT's own endeavors with packaged applications and growing use of open source technologies. A constant is the homogeneous infrastructure already owned and maintained by organizations, and a wide variety of user activities that were tracked in the research.

"Latency, context and actionable information are things we have been talking about over the last 20 years, but the reality is that a lot of technologies are now merging into tools and platforms that are not necessarily going to be coming from a status quo vendor. You're going to have to think outside the box, because these things might actually save you a day on a quarterly close, or increase customer satisfaction responsively by five days, or save churn and prevent regulatory headaches," Smith said.

On the specific areas of latency, contextual and actionable priorities, Smith's comments:

1. Data latency: "In many cases people have given up on waiting to have the right systems in place and they use their brains and personal productivity tools, Office and Access to circumvent the unfortunate reality that IT organizations are driven to do other things and are not responsive. We don't have information in time to matter. We have talked about this over the last five years but now we are living with the consequences. There is a dilemma over spreadsheets and the use of data that is not valid and making decisions that are not as relevant as they should be. There is a set of technologies that has been evolving over the last 10 years and converging to support the BI space. One of them is in the event monitoring space and rule-based types of systems; the other is helping to give direct and dynamic access to information across the enterprise. While the data warehouses have done a great job of providing good data repositories, they don't necessarily have the timely cycles our users need to access information."

2. Context: "Many organizations have gone down the path of putting brand new reporting systems in place. In some cases, it's about delivering new fancy interfaces that are easier to use; in other cases it's just [replacing] existing infrastructure. [But] trying to put more information out there isn't the problem most companies face: it's trying to provide context so that people can people can discern what content actually means and what they can do about it. Unfortunately, we have looked at particular areas where people have put reports out but they're not sure what should be done or how they should get things done - how to use information and link it to goals and objectives. What should change and who should make those changes? A lot of things are happening around analytics, around scorecards, around applications focused on portfolio management that are evolving to address these areas. Another thing that will really change the way we do things is in the area of search. [While] we have seen continuing hype around the 'Google effect,' search is only relevant as it pertains to bringing back relevant information. So, search with context around roles will make it much easier for people to get information. [Compare this to] today, when we spend time clicking through portals, trying to launch reports, trying to copy and paste to Excel, and we perpetuate the problems in that space.

3. Actionable Information: "'Actionable' is not just about putting information in front of someone, but how [that person] will actually do something with the information. This extends from the first two issues of latency and context. As we try to reduce the latency cycles in our companies, we now need to understand what the information is going to do for an individual in the organization. [This is] operational BI, operational intelligence, ways in which technology can provide information that drives action in organizations."

Though not addressed directly, all of Smith's observations refer eventually to issues of governance, ownership, stewardship and recognition of business processes that underlie and trump issues of technology, something Smith did address in conclusion. "We have been pontificating around BI in terms of cost management. If we're not using information to manage performance and improve, why are we putting systems in place? In a lot of cases we see IT projects that don't look at the need to align performance, the time to understand goals and objectives."

(Editor's note: Attendees of BI Forum 2006 witnessed an invaluable stream of presentations and insight from world-class proponents of BI in financial services and health care: Mayo Clinic, Wells Fargo, McKesson Pharmaceutical, Stanford Federal Credit Union, Boston Medical Center, Chase Card Services, Mount Sinai Hospital, Pitney Bowes, Purdue Pharma, and many more. Many of these presentations will form the basis of future articles in BI Review, but there is no substitute for hearing directly from and meeting these BI "movers and shakers," which we hope you will plan to do at out next event.)

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