SEATTLE -- Last year’s theme at the Microsoft BI conference was “pervasiveness.” The mantra this year was largely the same with an added admonition for enterprises to “think bigger” about business intelligence.


Thinking bigger is a message many of us have been waiting to hear - from everyone. Microsoft certainly had the goods on display to make a strong case for an enterprise BI platform, or at least the greater part of one. And there was some interesting product news in Seattle last week, a project called “Madison” connected to the DATAllegro acquisition, and the upcoming release of a BI-tuned SQL Server codenamed “Kilimanjaro.” The biggest buzz was around “Gemini,” a desktop Excel add-on with an embedded column-based data store that will integrate with SharePoint for collaborative workspaces and more. It is a compelling idea, and sessions on Gemini overflowed conference rooms.


I’ll let you read about those announcements elsewhere. Most of the stuff above is still at least a year or two away from availability, and that may be a good thing for some customers – if they are paying attention to what all this means. What struck me in the here-and-now is the question of how corporations are going to oversee enterprise scale “managed self-service” (in Microsoft parlance) once they get it. That’s because once you get past a couple of technology issues, most of the challenge will hit home, not so much for IT as for the business.


I was especially drawn to a weaker-attended but valuable main session (it’s tough to follow keynoter Ben Stein) featuring conference platinum sponsors: consulting partners Accenture and Hitachi; hardware partners Dell and HP; and Norwegian startup software partner ProfitBase. The meat of session, headed by Bob Lokken, senior director of Microsoft BI, dealt with policies, processes and skill sets as opposed to technology. I was able to listen to and also speak separately with some of the guests.


There were warnings of failures to address the high ground from all camps. Mike Frahey, chief of technology at HP’s Information Management Practice, says he sees programs bailing out on business objectives in order to take the shortest route to data modeling. “There’s a lost art of modeling,” he said. “Companies have come to buy models off the shelf instead of focusing on core competencies.”


“We need to have a new look and be serious about roles and responsibilities because BI is not a hobby even though a lot of companies look at it that way,” said Todd Price, managing VP, BI and Performance Management at Hitachi Consulting. “We need to create career paths, learn about architecture, budget and understand long-term priorities and short-term discrete problems.”


Some of us have witnessed high/low strategies in action, yet unlike legal services or human resources, Price told me he doesn’t often see a practice that owns BI and performance management inside the organization. “It used to be that the BI organization was just a place where the people who you couldn’t figure out what to do with wound up. A good BI person is a special blend, typically a technical person who can understand connectivity and business issues. If you have a few of those people it’s a powerful weapon that can help you differentiate.”


Greg Todd, Accenture’s senior executive of Information Management Services is predicting a next generation of information management in a corollary to enterprise resource planning (ERP), something he calls information resource planning (IRP). Just as ERP represented the consolidation of transactional systems to a footprint of modules (customer relationship management, supply chain management, human resources), Todd thinks there will be core capabilities around modules of data integration, online analytical processing (OLAP), content management, etc. “Just as there was a common grouping of applications for ERP, there is a common grouping of systems for IRP,” Todd says. “At the end of the day you’ll end up with a grouping of products on one common single vendor platform.” Wary as I am of three-letter acronyms, and with the knowledge that we’ve gone through platforms and modules and back again before, I’m not sure we won’t end up tackling information management in a similar fashion.


Remember what came out of the ERP versus best-of-breed model? One Microsoft product manager at the conference told me he’s actually seeing more complexity rather than less, given the emergence of new classes of startup partners and the need to coordinate information disciplines that do not share a common technology (even if you buy them from the same vendor). You can imagine that consultants and systems integrators are licking their chops at the prospect, but I generally agree that we haven’t been down this road before on the information side of the house.


The emerging model of information management is already a marketplace, but has yet to become a program or framework for big organizations that are buying into the idea. Though the venue belonged to Microsoft, you could easily say the same thing at a conference held by IBM, Oracle or SAP. Today, information management is a series of related topics rather than a single unified practice or monolithic architecture. If technology is increasingly plug-and-play (not discounting the challenges of data integration, metadata, modeling, quality and so on), information management is not.


Microsoft has largely won the enterprise collaborative information workspace war over the old big-metal portal model as it first appeared and already has the buy-in of SQL, Windows Server, PerformancePoint, SharePoint and Office. I’ve read reliable accounts of many tens of millions of SharePoint users. I can agree completely that self-service is the future, acknowledging that we don’t yet know the challenge that will arise from Google, other Web-based providers or open source.


In any case it’s the “managed” part of self-service that’s going to need a structure from business more than a go-to-market model from Microsoft or anyone else. It’s going to require an understanding of overlapping networks of information in house, in channels and completely outside the firewall. It's going to require new job descriptions and multidiscipline career paths. Absent that understanding we’ll just be creating more sophisticated silos of information.

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