Ten years ago, would anyone have thought consumers would be the leading force in application development? The World Wide Web is making the consumer a powerful change agent. Consumer-facing applications are the driving force behind the pressure put on businesses that sell products/services on the Web. If the businesses don’t provide what the consumers expect, the consumers will go elsewhere to buy the goods and services. The consumer can customize products and orders and can read pages of books before buying them. If not satisfied, the consumer can move from one business to another with a click of the mouse.

This amazing consumer power mandates that the applications on the Web have dynamic contents with rich visualization and extreme interactivity. In short, these applications have to be rich in all these capabilities. Let’s appropriately call them rich Internet applications (RIAs).

Once people become accustomed to the consumer-facing RIAs in business-to-consumer (B2C) interactions, they expect the same everywhere. These RIA expectations translate to interactions between businesses (business-to-business, or B2B) and employer/employee interactions (business-to-employee, or B2E).

Providing dynamic, interactive access with rich visualization and RIAs, B2C, B2B and B2E applications will require a robust back-end server with comprehensive access to disparate data, scalability to support millions of people, reliability, security features and improved performance to provide all of this in a matter of seconds. This development is driving the business intelligence (BI) future - no matter what we call BI!

BI and Parts of the Puzzle

There are three major puzzle pieces when it comes to today’s status of BI. Technology companies are one part. These companies make hardware, software, applications and solutions and sell or rent their wares to the second part of the puzzle. The second piece of the puzzle is made up of the companies that sell products or services to other companies or to consumers after having used the technology. The consumer is the third piece of the puzzle. When companies buy from other companies or provide service to other companies, it results in B2B transactions. And when the companies sell to the consumers, it results in B2C transactions.

Consumers are Driving the BI Trends

A very high percentage of consumers today are using the Internet to buy goods. At the same time, it is the developers of the companies of both the first and second pieces of puzzle that have to develop these consumer-facing applications as well as the back-office applications. According to Forrester Research, “To get the most from their workforces, firms should design employee-facing tools ... and look for opportunities to leverage RIA’s specific capabilities to improve usability.”1 RIAs are Web-based applications that have the features and functionality of traditional desktop applications and perform sophisticated transactions and interactions on the Web. As a result, the consumer-facing interfaces are becoming more sophisticated, and very similar features will be expected in the B2B and in B2E applications.

The tried and tested consumer-facing interfaces are being transferred inside the firewall to become employee-facing interfaces. Once these sophisticated interfaces are used by the employees inside the firewall, the employees will make the interfaces even richer in capabilities - resulting in more sophisticated interfaces for the BI systems. This trend of sophisticated, attractive interfaces will result in richer interfaces for the suppliers, partners and everyone else communicating via the Internet with the organization.

Another set of applications that are positively affected are back-office applications, or applications that are necessary to run a successful organization. These include functions such as tracking the deliveries of products/services, revenue generation, revenue collection, etc. Today, organizations are geographically scattered for economic reasons. Employees must be able to communicate effectively - regardless of geographic location. The Intranet development environment is becoming just as important as the extranet self-service applications that serve the consumers.

The collaborative workforce is made up of consumers and employees who have joined virtual communities. In the near future, the majority of the work performed by employees will be collaborative rather than people working alone. What is needed with BI is a collaborative architecture that enables these employees/developers and consumers to work together to rapidly develop relevant, usable data views.

In order to accomplish this, BI will have to support an “open” architecture of technology for collaborative approaches for software development. The software developers have to be provided with robust information access, integration and delivery capabilities. And consumer technologies have to be integrated into the enterprise computing environments. As mentioned before, it is the consumers who are driving the BI trends.

Intranet BI and performance management applications help enterprises run more effectively and efficiently. Extranet self-service applications improve customer loyalty. In order to achieve this, most of the applications have to be developed by using extranet/intranet/Web as the main platform. Consumer-oriented software is already mostly Web based. Now enterprise software and the majority of BI must also be Web based. That means most of the applications have to be running effectively inside and outside the firewall.

RIAs typically transfer the processing necessary for the user interface to the Web client but keep the bulk of the data (i.e., maintaining the state of the program, the data, etc.) back on the application server. According to Forrester Research, “Rich Internet applications are well suited for financial services interactions that are extremely complex, rely on graphics and models, and often require data from multiple sources.”2 Patterns that are already present in the data have to be presented visually by the extranet/intranet applications that must be Web based.

Data Visualization and Consumerization of IT

Other than providing fancy charts and graphs, can BI technology handle the mass quantities of disparate data stored by the businesses waiting to be discovered for better decision-making? Doesn’t BI have to “see” that data and make it easily accessible for these people? Visualization - or seeing the disparate data sitting in different places, stored in a wide variety of different formats - is one of the trends that BI will have to pursue. The software has to have appropriate architecture to be able to access disparate data without needing to know the location or type of data.

The “consumerization” of IT refers to the impact that technologies, products and approaches adopted by consumers or designed for consumer use have on developers, technology providers and enterprises. Supporting virtualization, commoditization and consumerization of these IT resources requires openness of software.

Virtualization, Commoditization and Consumerization

BI is supposed to enable user self-sufficiency by providing interactive content through service-oriented architecture (SOA). SOA defines and provisions the IT infrastructure to allow different applications to exchange data and participate in business processes. SOA separates functions into distinct units (services), which can be distributed over a network and can be combined and reused to create business applications. These services communicate with each other by passing data from one service to another, or by coordinating an activity between two or more services. SOA concepts are often seen as built upon older concepts of distributed computing and modular programming. This is called virtualization of IT resources.

In the virtualization of IT resources, the customers, employees or suppliers don’t need to know what is where as long as they have quick access to it, preferably via the Internet. The data is becoming a commodity because of the tools that are used to access it. It is affordable for people to buy computers, quality laptops are cheap, storage in gigabytes is not expensive and Internet access providers are vying to get customers by supplying less expensive high-speed bandwidth for pennies. People receive approximately the same quality of hardware and Internet access independent of which vendor they select. That is commoditization - delivering solutions to thousands and thousands of consumers!

With the use of SOA, BI has to support dashboards, spreadsheets and predictive analytics - as well as anything and everything that will help people make better decisions faster. But so far, with its B2E applications, BI has catered only to a limited group of users, known as power users. BI has to look beyond the power users. But what does BI need to be equipped with in order to address the needs of thousands of other users within organizations? Scalability! Scalability is also a must for the use of the technology by thousands upon thousands of the consumers with B2C applications.

BI Delivery Model, Scalability and Performance Management

BI was never meant only for the front end. BI was intended to bring the data, which is without a doubt on the back-end server(s), in palatable form to the front end. The BI delivery model provides content that will “talk” to its constituents - consumers, employees partners and suppliers. These people, who used to be looked upon as a separate group with different needs, are considered as one conglomerate having very similar requirements for information. In diversity there is unity!

Depending on the size and complexity of the Web application, the computer environment may be able to handle anywhere from hundreds to thousands of concurrent users. The number of concurrent connections to the Web server(s) will ultimately have a direct impact on the Web site’s performance. In order to keep performance acceptable, scalability objectives must answer the following questions:

  • What is the response time of a single user’s transaction?
  • What will be the response time when the number of concurrent users on the Web server(s) increases?

Beside scalability, BI must support both consumer-facing online channels and back-office operational performance management applications. In order to support high performance RIAs, it is necessary to build applications to incorporate rich, robust production reporting, interactive reporting and ad hoc information access functionality.
BI Must be Both Extroverted and Introverted

The consumers and the business processes of an organization are driving future BI environments. Running queries and reports has become a commodity. We should not overemphasize functionalities such as software enabling insights into complex analytics, pattern matching and nonobvious relationship analysis because consumers don’t seem to be too keen on these capabilities.

So far, BI has been mostly introverted. Its main focus has been “inward,” taking care of executives of an organization with charts, graphs and analytics as well as slicing and dicing the numbers to find out how an organization is doing financially. And the extroverted RIA’s focus has been “outward,” looking to the consumers. Now, the developers have to look outward to the consumers and inward to the suppliers, partners and employees to include B2B and B2E RIAs. BI has to be extroverted - assisting the consumers and businesses outside the firewall - and also must be introverted - assisting the employees and developers inside the firewall. Only the companies with BI capabilities to be both extroverted and introverted at the same time by developing B2C, B2B and B2E RIAs can be successful in the BI environment of today and of tomorrow.

References:

  1. Ron Rogowski. “Rich Internet Applications: Not Just for Customers.” Forrester Research, March 1, 2007.
  2. Ron Rogowski, Bruce D. Temkin, Steven Geller. “Financial Institutions Need Rich Internet Apps: Rich Internet Applications Better Enable Complex Financial Interactions.” Forrester Research, September 26, 2007.

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