A major European telecommunications company plans to differentiate itself from competitors by offering online billing analysis to its more than 4 million wireless, mobile customers. Online data analysis will enable the customers to continually analyze their online usage and reevaluate their choice of usage plans.
Consider a hypothetical case of a large bank that requires immediate analysis of millions of account transaction records on a 60-day rolling basis and must make that information available to its customers immediately. How does such a company begin to tackle this monumental a task one so intrinsic to establishing a competitive advantage?
In such cases, traditional business intelligence (BI) approaches and strategies will not work. The telecom company cannot provide conventional BI capabilities to millions of wireless customers the same way it provides BI to its handful of middle managers. Similarly, the bank will need to find flexible, dynamic ways to exchange data and engage in sophisticated BI with a vast array of customers. The present approach to BI simply cannot provide the scalability and flexibility necessary to deliver effective BI in the new Internet-driven information age. Organizations that hope to succeed in the Internet economy must move beyond BI as quickly as possible.
The Rise of the Information Age
The information age, or information economy as it is often called, is dramatically different from the industrial age or even the computer age (which actually represented the last refinements of the industrial age), a century-long drive to make business more efficient through increased automation. Computerization was actually the penultimate industrial age achievement; this auto-mating of the paper trail represented the apogee of industrial automation. After several decades of computer-based automation, downsizing, flattening and process reengineering, organizations have squeezed as much value as they can from computerization of business processes and the automation of the industrial age. Further advances will offer only incremental value at best.
The great increases in value going forward will come from information. Here at the dawn of the information age, it is already becoming evident to both industry thought leaders and the growing ranks of management that profound economic value lies in information or business intelligence or knowledge. Even now, at this early stage, this much is clear: this economy will run on information. In many ways information Internet intelligence will be to this new economy what petroleum products were to the industrial economy: the fuel for the knowledge workers who will drive productivity in the new millennium.
Internet Intelligence Requirements
Internet intelligence (II) requirements for the new information economy are far different than BI past and present. They are so different, in fact, from today's BI solutions which are designed for client/server computing as to raise the question of whether the current crop of BI solutions will be able to make the transition to the new distributed II architecture that will be required.
The first difference to become immediately apparent is the emergence of the Internet. II will be delivered via the Internet, but the Internet will do more than act simply as a transport mechanism moving data between corporate systems residing in the enterprise and users spread across the Internet. Much of the data itself and the processing to transform that data into valuable intelligence will reside elsewhere on the Internet. II solutions in this Internet-based information economy will have to fully leverage the Internet in new ways, such as delivering the actual data and the means to analyze the data rather than just results in the form of reports.
In addition, to succeed at II in the information age, the solutions will have to handle a wide range of unknowns. For instance, the relationship with the data provider, which will reside somewhere on the Internet, may be unknown. Similarly, the analytical skills and interests of the II user will be unknown and will vary greatly from rank novices to highly skilled analysts. In addition, the location of users, their desktop systems and tools, and the frequency with which they will be accessing the II solution are all unknown. Even the number of users will be unknown and potentially very high.
Although the European mobile telecom provider previously noted has 4 million wireless accounts, it has no way to determine in advance how many of those accounts will make use of the II solution it intends to provide. Additionally, it cannot determine in advance how frequently users will make use of the II solution. Finally, it has no way of controlling what kind of devices its customers ultimately will be using. Will they be analyzing usage data on their personal IP-capable wireless phones with constrained screens, tiny amounts of memory and limited application processing capabilities or on full-scale laptop or desktop systems running Excel spreadsheets or other applications?
By comparison, today's BI solutions are designed for environments where the data sources are well known and the data well understood. The analytical interests, skills and tools of the users also are well known, typically comprised of a handful of trained middle managers and analysts. Even with latest the Web-based BI solutions (which consist of client/server BI systems capable of delivering query results formatted in HTML to a browser through a Web front end), the data sources, analytical interests and skills are probably known. Only the location of the user, who is somewhere on the Internet, is unknown; and the number of users will be somewhat greater than the relatively few who use the conventional client/server BI solution. These solutions still deliver reports, not what users really need: the data and the means to analyze it however they want and wherever they are.
While Web-based BI is clearly a step in the right direction, it will not be able to deliver maximum benefit because of its client/server heritage. Most current systems are really thin-client adaptations of the fat-client tools that dominated the early 1990s; and most vendors still think in terms of per-user charges, even when the Internet model makes that outmoded. But how, for example, can the European wireless telecom provider negotiate a per-user license with a BI provider when it has no idea of how many of its customers will take advantage of the II offering?
The New II Solution
The II solution of the information age will be considerably different from the BI solutions that are common today. It not only will be Internet capable; but it will have been designed, built and optimized for the Internet. These new II solutions will shed their reliance on the enterprise host for back-end information processing, turning instead to the Internet for both fundamental information distribution and distributed application processing.
Also, II will disprove many of the old BI assumptions about the homogeneous nature and occasional use of BI solutions and the limited number of the potential users. Instead, they will find a world in which businesses will be broadly involved in continuous information processing and II by ever-changing populations of affiliated users with varying analytical interests, needs and analytical skills.
Central to the new II will be the concept of distributed information processing. Already, companies have demonstrated the value and benefit of moving information and processing far out into the Internet. To become the underpinning of the information economy, II also will have to acquire a distributed architecture with the ability to pull together analytical environments on the fly from disparately located data sources. Instead of simply distributing query results to users across the Internet, the new II will stream actual data to users of the virtual organization scattered across the Internet. These users will then be able to analyze, manipulate and combine data from multiple sources for a variety of purposes as their needs dictate.
The bank, for instance, might stream data to customers as a data hologram, an advanced mathematical model. In this way, otherwise impossibly large volumes of data become easily and quickly accessible, enabling sophisticated customer queries in mere seconds.
The new II also will give rise to a different kind of database. Today's relational databases, which play a central role in client/server BI, actually are designed for transaction processing; they are not optimized for the organization's II needs going forward. Just as relational databases rose with client/ server computing, eventually supplanting a variety of host database technologies, so the relational database will now share database chores with other technologies. In the distributed Internet information architecture, new types of databases optimized for multidimensional analysis of information in widely varying formats, schemas and data structures will assume a key II role alongside relational databases which will continue to handle transaction processing.
Today's client/server-oriented BI has performed a valuable service, allowing organizations to leverage their business data to make smarter, better informed business decisions around traditional business processes. With the rise of the Internet, however, organizations now face entirely new types of business processes from managed supply chains to empowered customers to virtual organizations. These require not BI but II to serve widely different business needs.
What will II solutions look like in the future? From what we can see now, the II solution will be optimized for the Internet and based on a widely distributed architecture. It will employ new database technologies optimized for heterogeneous, multidimensional data analysis, and it will efficiently handle unknown numbers of users with unknown analytical interests and skills.
Not all of today's BI products will make the transition to II. In fact, most probably won't. But this shouldn't be surprising: a new age and a new economy invariably bring forth new business tools. Information architectures have already gone through one profound revolution. Who remembers EIS in the late 1980s? How many successful EIS vendors survived the infrastructure and model change to BI? The move to II and distributed information architectures is as profound a change as the host-to-client/server migration that drove the transition from EIS to BI. As with previous transitions, it will take a new lineup of vendors to get II right.
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