From daily financial metrics to monthly management reports, business intelligence (BI) technology has had a tremendous impact on decision-making activities at most companies. Despite the broad penetration of BI among executives, managers and professional analysts, from an end-user standpoint the technology is only beginning to reach its potential. Most companies have BI success stories, but upon closer examination it turns out that they access and analyze less than 20 percent of their data assets. On average, these firms have deployed BI capabilities to fewer than 10 percent of their internal users. This paltry adoption rate minimizes the return on IT investments and leaves many opportunities untapped. One of the primary reasons BI hasn’t spread further is because of the traditional IT practices associated with its deployment. Unwittingly, many companies erect barriers between BI technology and corporate knowledge, preventing people from accessing the collective intelligence of the enterprise.

Establishing a BI-savvy population means breaking down the barriers that stand between people and information. This article focuses on the usability barrier, which forces people to learn BI tools rather than simply access timely information.

Breaking Down the Usability Barrier

Whether you call it operational BI, pervasive BI or BI for the masses, the more consumers of information you have, the greater value you will obtain from your BI initiatives. BI isn’t just an IT initiative or even a set of specific projects. It’s a basic business competency. How do you achieve this mass democratization of BI? Quite simply, you have to bring the technology to the users. Business people have little interest in spending time learning a complex BI environment, let alone creating reports and running queries. That’s not to say these traditional BI activities aren’t valuable. They are. But if BI technology is to become truly pervasive, basic query and reporting capabilities need to be woven into the fabric of routine business processes.

Of course, it’s important to make a distinction between BI professionals and information consumers. BI professionals and power users still need general-purpose reporting tools so they can create custom reports. Information consumers, on the other hand, generally want to receive actionable information as part of their familiar business applications and tasks. Using BI capabilities should be as easy as ordering a product from Amazon or searching for content on Google.

BI vendors are responding in a number of ways:

  • With BI search capabilities that make it easy to find enterprise content and share results;
  • With highly portable “active reporting” technology that can deliver information to users when they are offline, even to cell phone browsers;
  • By integrating BI environments with Microsoft Office applications — in particular, with Microsoft Excel; and
  • With process-driven and embedded analytic routines that infuse BI capabilities into familiar work environments.

Cracking the Google Usability Threshold

Most people waste a lot of time searching for information. According to a study of more than 1,000 managers at U.S. and UK companies, the average middle manager spends about two hours per day looking for data, and IT managers spend 30 percent of their time trying to pin down information relevant to their jobs.1 The real value of search technology comes when you can feed your search engine from all enterprise data sources - and analyze results along the way. That means being able to access dynamic BI content in addition to structured and unstructured data sources throughout your enterprise. Your BI tools should give you the reach you need by connecting your search index to all data sources and transaction processing systems.

Unfortunately, most BI tools offer only rudimentary search capabilities. Typically, they work by building a consolidated index of enterprise data. Only a small amount of BI information gets archived, which limits the usefulness of this model.

When a transaction is processed by your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, can it feed the information to the search index, in real time? Ideally, you should be able to empower users to search for enterprise content as easily as they use their favorite search engine on the Web. By enabling users to easily locate key facts through simple keyword searches, your organization will realize significant productivity gains - and spend a lot less time searching for information.

Breaking through the Firewall

How do you deliver secure, interactive BI capabilities to users outside of your firewall? Many organizations don’t want people accessing their internal data, no matter how carefully those users have been authorized or how secure the connections. The response has generally been to send static reports, file downloads or spreadsheet data that those users can manipulate on their own. That’s a good start, but today’s external users are demanding interactivity. How do you get there? The current state of the art in the BI industry is known as active reporting technology. By combining data and interactive controls into a single, self-contained HTML file, active reports deliver analytic capabilities in a completely portable and disconnected environment, with no client-side software required. This approach allows external users to manipulate reports in various sort orders, filter data by their own criteria and chart information for visual impact - anytime, anywhere.

Active reports are ideal not only for business partners such as dealers or suppliers, but also for mobile employees who are frequently disconnected from the network, such as sales reps who spend most of their time visiting clients or service professionals who travel from site to site.

In summary, the firewall does not have to be a barrier. If it is, you will have trouble achieving a substantial ROI - which doesn’t come from a few highly trained people slicing and dicing information in a data warehouse. Real ROI arises when lots of people obtain valuable information. There is no value in collecting data. The real value comes from using it.

Converging with Microsoft Office

The next great usability barrier that needs to be breached is the wall between BI environments and the personal productivity tools that users “live in” – namely, Microsoft Excel and other Microsoft Office applications. The problem comes when people create and manipulate their own private data sources, leading to inconsistent data management practices for the organization as a whole. This brings us to the issue of enterprise information management (EIM). As BI spreads throughout the organization, it is no longer merely a front-end problem. Users need clean and accurate information - as well as consistent definitions of that information to fully understand its purpose and validity.

This is especially true as BI technology becomes more widely used by rank-and-file workers. As BI information is deployed on a much wider basis, casual users don’t have the experience to analyze the data at this level. They must assume it is accurate and without ambiguity.

There are many aspects to a comprehensive EIM strategy, but fundamentally it concerns who owns what data and how processes are developed to ensure that data is synchronized among users, applications and services. The goal is simple: clean data that is always available to all stakeholders.

With respect to Microsoft Excel, the best way to overcome this information anarchy is with direct integration between your officially sanctioned data sources and the personal spreadsheets that people create on an ad hoc basis. A simple Excel plug-in lets users pull BI data into Excel and refresh that data as needed, yet still keep their private activities in sync with the latest corporate information. Most BI tools require you to first go to the BI environment to create reports or queries and then save the output to an Excel document. That’s not the right way to do it, because every time you output the data, you create a private database, with the potential for discrepancies. If you want true Excel integration along with semantic consistency, look for a BI environment that enables users to access BI capabilities directly from within the Excel environment.

Infusing BI into Standard Business Processes

BI initiatives succeed when they can deliver information to people who need it, then guide them to perform qualified actions in the context of a specific business process. Most people prefer targeted information that has been embedded in their familiar business processes. Ideally, the information should be delivered in context and relevant to the needs of the moment. For example, a call center rep might depend on insight from a BI system to determine which products to sell based on a customer’s recent transactions and credit history. Reps shouldn’t have to fire up a report writer or query a database for the information. It should be delivered in the context of what they are already doing, precisely when they need it, and allow them to take appropriate action.

In many cases, this requires “getting under the covers” and integrating proactive decision-making functions with the standard business processes of the enterprise. For example, a simple BI routine can spot orders above a certain value, and then recommend tier-one suppliers based on performance. If an order-entry clerk has to run a historical report to find this information, it generally slows down the process. That individual should be advised automatically about the optimum supplier to use at the time the order is committed.

This level of automation can only be achieved when the BI environment can utilize mature integration technology - ideally, using a service-oriented architecture and a wide range of adapters for integrating and transforming data types. This allows users to tap into any business data in real time as it flows throughout the company: capturing events, enriching them with data from other systems, and transforming them into a form suitable for storage in a real-time data warehouse. What’s the end result? Business users obtain consistently fresh information.

Beating the Clock with Real-Time Decisions

As integration technology gets better, data warehouses are changing as well - from storing monthly to weekly to daily information and even intra-day information. Information gets fresher and decision-making becomes more immediate, as organizations develop BI strategies that give them a real-time glimpse into the workings of the business. Real-time BI entails changing a process based on an inline analysis embedded in that process. A proactive business can make decisions based on current events and conditions as they occur, such as which customers are most likely to defect or which items are running low in inventory. Once you add predictive analytics and planning into your BI strategy, you can start to focus on what the future might bring.

Welcome to the Era of Convergence

As we’ve seen, today’s versatile BI applications give companies a new way to serve customers, interact with business partners and deliver information to all types of external users - in some cases creating entirely new lines of business. Information democracies require a blend of technology, culture and process. Most companies are making strides technically, but they lag behind in implementing the cultural and process changes that make the technology broadly applicable. Hopefully, the suggestions presented in this article will supply some useful ideas for improvement.

With the right information at their fingertips, everybody in the organization becomes a potential decision-maker, whether they work in HR, tech support, shipping, finance or a host of other domains. Getting there requires a new mindset for rolling out BI functionality, which involves breaking down the barriers that stand between users and information.


  1. M. McGee.“Managers Have Too Much Information, Do Too Little Sharing.” InformationWeek, January 8, 2007.

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