Worldwide business intelligence (BI) platform revenue is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.1 percent through 2012, to reach $7.7 billion in 2012. Gartner analysts expect BI platform revenue to be less affected by an economic downturn than some other technologies because of the high priority that BI platforms hold with CIOs. BI was the number one technology priority in 2008 in a worldwide survey of 1,500 CIOs by Gartner Executive Programs.1 The BI market has grown, evolved, matured and has become a necessity for most organizations over a period of time. Organizations today rely on BI to make informed decisions to remain agile and adaptive in the vibrant and dynamic business environment as well as to attain and maintain leadership positions.

Over the years, the way in which organizations have accessed the enterprise information for analysis has undergone dramatic change. The pervasiveness of BI tools has been increasing as these tools have made it possible to provide easy access to analyze enterprise data with enhanced data visualization. However, organizations that continue to adopt traditional BI approaches to access information will no longer survive in this challenging and fast-changing market. They will not be able to respond quickly to the needs of their customers and business partners. They will struggle to reduce their operational costs and increase operational efficiencies. We will show in this article how the next generation of BI reporting tools needs to take a radical approach to access information within and beyond the boundaries of enterprise.

Evolution of BI Reporting Tools

In the early half of the 20th century, businesses lacked the computing resources and tools to properly analyze the data, and as a result, companies often made business decisions primarily on the basis of intuition. As businesses started automating their business processes, more and more data became available. Soon, organizations realized the importance of the systematic approach for analysis of the data that was gathered. The term “business intelligence” was first defined in an October 1958 IBM Journal article by Hans Peter Luhn titled “A Business Intelligence System.”2

In the early 1960s, reports for analyzing business within the organization were created using traditional languages such as COBOL. Queries and reporting were handled manually, and the IT department had to create each and every report for the business users. In the 1970s, several reporting tools that allowed nonprogrammers to access and analyze data were introduced. However, most products were developed on proprietary data formats. The 1980s was an era of relational databases and client/server reporting tools. Nevertheless, many organizations had a mixture of mainframes, distributed systems and databases with personal computers. Most client/server tools used structured query language (SQL) to access data. In 1989, Howard Dresner, later a Gartner analyst, popularized BI as an umbrella term to describe a set of concepts and methods to improve business decision-making by using fact-based decision support systems.3 In the 1990s, metadata-driven reporting tools with easy-to-use interfaces were introduced for the first time in the market. BI reporting tools matured with rich features and moved to more Web-based access for wider adoption across the organization. In the early 21st century, BI extended into process-centric, operational and more real-time reporting, which became popularly known as operational BI. At the same time, business performance management became a critical function in the era of globalization. BI tools thus became a crucial element in managing the performance needs of organizations, including the areas of planning, budgeting and financial performance management. Thus the BI usage no longer remained restricted to senior management. It has now stretched down to operational staff in organizations for managing day-to–day activities.

More Maturity Brought More Complexity

With increasing maturity, BI reporting tools have become richer in features along with the addition of new functionality. This provides an intuitive interface to the users and also helps reduce the turnaround time for IT. The flip side of this is that the reporting tools have become more complex. Today, many business users in organizations find it difficult to navigate and understand the user interface. Due to this, the goal of reducing the need for IT staff to create reports has not been achieved. In many organizations, there is an army of associates to create a set of reports.

These problems get worse when BI reporting product vendors upgrade their products with some significant changes in their user interface. Acquisitions of smaller BI vendors by larger ones and then the consolidation of these larger players have altered the product roadmaps, which has created additional disturbance and added more complexity.

The Next Wave of Business Intelligence

The next-generation BI tools will be designed to accelerate decision-making by providing a personalized user interface. BI users will be able to search, select and keep the frequently required information for day-to-day work in one convenient location on the desktop. Once the user logs in, all the information will be available at the users' fingertips in a customized manner.

The underlying concept for the next wave of BI reporting tool is to deliver information to users through a simple interface where they can also share information. Search tools help users get the BI reports and combine those with structured and unstructured data within and outside the enterprise. These reports can be shared through blogs within the BI community and converted into really simple syndication (RSS) feeds for subscription. RSS feeds will enable easy integration with the office productivity applications like spreadsheets, presentations and email. Key metrics could be easily converted and plugged into desktops as widgets for constant monitoring.

The Role of Search Tools

Search tools in the BI environment bring a big change to the way users explore and consume the required intelligence for decision-making within the enterprise. They guide users to get the answers to questions they are looking for. Search results provide the required business definition, metrics and corresponding explanations they are seeking.

These tools will sit on top of the BI infrastructure. Behind the user interface, BI search tools have built-in algorithms to create links between the metadata, data within disparate databases and enterprise content management systems. This architecture enables the search of structured report data for specific information and ties it to unstructured data within or outside the enterprise to support better decision-making. For ad hoc reporting, BI reporting tools will have the features to expose and publish their metadata in the form of a Web Service query. This ad hoc query can be accessed from any Web-based explorer. The ad hoc query as a service can be searched from the BI search tool and analyzed by users to get the right answers.

RSS Feeds in BI

Use of RSS feeds will revolutionize how BI reports are made available to the users. Imagine receiving the BI information you need frequently in a manner similar to the way information such as news headlines are delivered. This would be possible by subscribing to the RSS feeds of the analytics. With RSS feeds of frequently used reports, you no longer will navigate through several of reports to access the information. Every BI user will have control of the report data refresh rate and the contents to be displayed through the RSS feeds to which they subscribe.

These RSS feeds will have integration with office productivity applications like spreadsheet and presentation applications. This helps business users, who spend most of their time in these applications, to receive continuous feeds of refreshed reports. RSS feeds add life to the reports and presentations of senior management by providing an automated feed of live data using a single click from the office productivity applications.

BI Community Blogs

The concept of blogs in BI brings a collaborative information-sharing model to organizations. This enables connecting, hearing and sharing within the BI user community about what works and what does not work. Since blogs have been introduced, they have created a revolution on the Web, impacting affairs of state and enabling many people to share information and connect with each other. As per Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2008, social software technologies will increasingly be brought into the enterprise to augment traditional collaboration.4 In the next-generation BI environment, every BI user will have tools to create blogs dedicated to BI. A BI blog will be an easy-to-use Web site with out-of-the-box features that enable users to create their own Web sites, allowing them to quickly post thoughts and interact with colleagues. These BI blogs, with adequate security, could serve as their personal diary for daily decision-making.

A BI blog could have links to specific reports, dashboards, documents and other blogs that are relevant to decision-making. It would allow BI users to post comments in an interactive format. When a BI user subscribes to a specific feed in the blog of another BI user, it will be added to the common feed list. Updated information from the feed will be automatically downloaded to the BI user’s computer to be viewed in a Web browser or email application. The blogging site within an organization should also be easily accessible through mobile devices. This enables BI users who are on the move to automatically post information to their blog and communicate with colleagues.

Desktop BI Gadgets

In the next-generation BI tools, users will be able to access important and most frequently accessed data through widgets on their desktops. The widgets could resemble alerts, key metrics, business activity monitoring measures, etc.

A BI user will be able to personalize and share these widgets with other users in an organization. BI widgets could be added to a desktop with a couple of clicks from the Web browser. The BI widgets would be refreshed to ensure that the most current information is made accessible.

Transformation to the New BI Wave

Organizations will have to bring BI, business process management, enterprise application integration and enterprise content management together to gain better insight to decision-making and transition to the next generation of enterprise intelligence. Organizations will not be able to unlock the true value of BI if they restrict the usage of BI to only the CXO and middle management/executive levels. Even though most strategic decisions are made at higher levels of management, the actual execution and success of those strategies is dependent on how and what kind of tools are made available to the operational staff. Inability of the employees within the organization to collaborate, communicate and share will present a major roadblock to the organization’s goal of becoming agile, efficient and adaptive.

To create a shared ecosystem within the enterprise, the flow of information and intelligence from CXOs to middle management down to the operational staff needs support from a robust, well-thought-out enterprise framework. The approach of this framework should be to link the various processes within organizations vertically and horizontally across the enterprise instead of in a series of silos. This framework should bring convergence and synergies to the traditional areas of IT applications including enterprise resource planning (ERP), BI and customer relationship management (CRM). This will provide the enterprise with the capability of making decisions within the ongoing business process.

Without good governance and a robust security model, such an implementation would become a nightmare. A good governance model with participation from all the program stakeholders should be formed to ensure their awareness, ownership, alignment and acceptance toward the common enterprise-wide program aspirations. The future BI user interface tools will provide end-to-end business process visibility within the enterprise landscape. Future BI tools along with an effective adoption of the enterprise strategy, framework and execution will improve operational efficiencies, reduce average overall costs and improve customer and partner relationships for the organization.

The Cultural Shift

Organizations that value, recognize and reward the collaborative working culture are most likely to gain from the immense advantages of the new generation BI tools. Information sharing and transparency within the enterprise would be the central themes of the cultural change within the organization. If handled effectively, organizations will truly benefit from the revolution that these next-generation tools will bring in by breaking the existing communication barriers and silos of information. There will be a complete transformation of the way information will be consumed within the organization. Management has always been skeptical about sharing information with its staff. Some of the reasons include fear of inappropriate usage of this information within and outside the enterprise, or fear of losing power or authority over the information itself. With proper security and audit controls in place, information usage can be controlled. However, organizations will still face the challenge of deciding how much information should be shared with its staff for improving operational efficiencies.

The next wave of enterprise intelligence is going to bring a lot of curiosity and excitement to organizations. It will add up individual knowledge within the organization to create a large intelligence pool within the enterprise. It will help create an information-centric culture through information sharing and socializing from senior management to everyone in the enterprise.

References:

  1. "Forecast: Business Intelligence Platforms, Worldwide, 2007-2012.” Gartner, Inc., April 1, 2008.
  2. H.P. Luhn. “A Business Intelligence System.” IBM Journal, October 1958.
  3. D.J. Power. “A Brief History of Decision Support Systems.” DSSResources.COM, May 31, 2003.
  4. “Gartner Identifies the Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2008.” Gartner, Inc., October 9, 2007.

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