Business intelligence (BI) has gotten a bad rap over the years, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The common perception that BI is simply the delivery of static reports or dashboards for monitoring performance is, frankly, outdated. As the advances in technology, analytics, big data, and database technologies bring down the barriers to working with data, the result can be true democratization of data -- and that’s fun. But, in order to do that, BI needs to be rediscovered and traditional notions need to be challenged.
That’s the premise on which John O’Brien launched Radiant Advisors. O’Brien’s bold mission is to help people:
- Rediscover what BI is all about for the business.
- Reimagine how BI can transform analytics.
- Rethink what data and BI architecture should be.
The company approaches this transformational work through three main components: research, advisory services, and developing and mentoring people through editorial, events, and e-learning platforms. The RediscoveringBI publication and Spark! event series were launched with this goal. At the core of all three areas, O’Brien says the foundational approach is to “forget about architectures, forget about everything we’ve been doing for 20 years, get back to the basic principles of things, and really think about why we do something.”
It’s a lofty goal, requiring a shift in the pervasive mindset established around BI.
Modern Data Platform for BI
The good news is the BI landscape is reinventing itself. Demands for new architecture stem from business expectations, the need for a unifying architectural design, availability of more cost-effective price/performance computing resources, and introduction of new data technology. But, how do you recognize emerging technology? How do you integrate it with the data warehouse environment you’ve been building for the last decade?
Speaking from more than 25 years of industry experience, O’Brien says it’s not necessary to start from scratch, but it is imperative to embrace new paradigms. “Your data warehouse is a reflection of the analytic culture of your company,” and the key to advancing that maturity is to optimize the architecture for analytics and BI. This is the intent of the Modern Data Platform for BI.
“While it can start out very introductory – it doesn’t matter if somebody is new to the business or new to big data or anything like that – it very quickly moves them behind the scenes in understanding holistically how it all ties together. Holistically, understanding the role of big data or the role of the data warehouse or analytics is the key, because in any one of those areas you can drill into the details.”
The Spark! event series is designed to get people plugged into conversations and sharing their challenges and experiences for the benefit of the community. The goal is to facilitate small-group interaction to drill into the pressing issues facing organizations today. O’Brien challenges individuals to really think, rather than simply listen. In fact, he as he introduces the Modern Data Platform, he says the job of Spark! attendees is to try and break it. “When they get that level of engagement, they take ownership and they start to own that methodology – they take it back and they share it with companies and their colleagues, which is what we also want.”
Confident in the methodology behind the Modern Data Platform, O’Brien enjoys the opportunity for attendees to learn from each other. He sees his position as a facilitator and hopes attendees will come away with an understanding to help them cut through the noise of the industry and have an organizational strategy for where the technologies fit together in the framework. “The Modern Data Platform is all about data architecture and technology, but whenever they hear a new product or talk to a new vendor, they will look at it differently to say ‘I understand its role inside of a platform now.’”
This kind of understanding can lead to more consistency for IT. However, the focus needs to shift from being a technology-based decision to a capabilities-based decision. The emphasis must be on what the business is trying to do. “It changes the conversation between the technologists, the data folks, and the business. So much of what we do is technology for technology’s sake or architecture led, solving problems that don’t’ exist. And I think it helps them shift back into a business-led kind of conversation.”
In that context, O’Brien discerningly recognizes that the business doesn’t distinguish between types of BI or data analysis capabilities; they just do their jobs. For this reason, he considers IT to be consultants and brokers of technology on behalf of the business. “I see what we do with in the back end as enablers, but being enablers means bringing in the right technology tools but also helping the business, like a consulting model, to help them achieve things through analytics.”
With the recognition of analytics as a competitive differentiator, it is important to be extremely thoughtful about the approach, available skillsets, and data accessible to organizations, rather than rushing forward with analytics, potentially causing great risk. O’Brien warns that analytics is increasingly more complex than previous generations of BI. “We’re in such a rush to deliver an analytic model that a lot of gaps or risks are going to be introduced. And this is compounded by [analytics] being probably one of the most complex forms of BI we’ve ever delivered. So, I’m worried about people’s rush to deliver value. If they’re not equipped to do it correctly and businesses are going to make decisions based on poor models, we’ll have a backlash.”
Focusing on the business problem to be solved is a starting point for business analytics models that is a completely different paradigm than BI. “The data scientists don’t worry about data warehouses; they’ve never even heard of one most of the time. They just think about the [analytic] model. And those of us coming from the BI world trying to build these models think the old way.”
“It gets back to the real promise of business analytics, which starts with the business question,” says O’Brien. “Facebook started with ‘I want to understand something about people.’ They didn’t start with all the data and technology and say ‘What can we do with this? Think of a good question now that we have a columnar database.’” The goal is to identify business questions, collect the data, and find the answers.
As the world is changing because of analytics and data technologies, O’Brien believes we’re entering a new Information Age, and his passion about the ways technologies can be used to bring business value is contagious. Big data, NoSQL variations, in-memory, and cloud are just a few of the exciting advances that O’Brien states are “enabling anybody to do cool things.” And encouraging people to think about what they could do with all types of data – structured and unstructured - is a new way of thinking. “That whole shift in the mindset has people looking at data differently for the first time, and that’s really, really nice to see. Anything’s possible.”
“That’s how the whole world is shifting, which makes it completely exciting again. It’s a complete level playing field, which is the first we’ve seen in a very long time in the BI and data space,” he says.
And that’s fun.