Early in his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell cites two tipping point examples: Paul Revere's ride to warn the locals of the impending arrival of the British and Hush Puppies. I'm not old enough to remember Paul Revere. I do remember the Hush Puppies phenomenon. I never wore Hush Puppies, but I remember them. We've all lived through numerous tipping points. But do you recall being in one while it was happening?

I believe business intelligence (BI) is at the tipping point right now. Quantitative evidence abounds. A recent report from AMR forecasts software sales of $6.6 billion in the general BI tools segment in North America (NA) this year. They further forecast $5.5 billion in NA software sales for dashboards and scorecards and $4.1 billion in NA sales for planning, budgeting and forecasting solutions. Add in forecasts for hardware and services, and we're looking at a very substantial market for BI. AMR forecasts growth of nine percent, making BI one of the fastest-growing software and services markets.1 That is hefty growth for an already-large market segment.

Other industry and financial analysts are providing robust forecasts for the BI market. In the end, customers don't really care about sales figures. I only cite them because aggregate industry sales are first a proxy for usage and second a really rough proxy for investment and innovation. Enthusiasm for the BI market has driven vendor actions including acquisitions, consolidation, new entrants and new products. Competition is heating up, and that's good for customers.

That nine percent growth can come from a number of mechanisms. Net-new customers may be buying their first BI platforms and solutions. This may be especially true in the middle market. Vendors may be increasing prices. Or companies with existing BI implementations may be deploying additional solutions or pushing existing solutions to new users. Freeform Dynamics and The Register recently published survey results from more than 1,100 users in 250 companies on the subject of making business performance and management information more broadly available within their organizations. Twenty percent of respondents reported that they already provide information to a broad population of users. Fifty-two percent responded that they see significant benefit to broader access to information. The remaining 28 percent are either unsure on the matter (11 percent) or feel that meeting the needs of selected employees is enough.2

I once presented to an international bank only to learn they didn't want anyone using their data warehouse. The idea of information loose in the wild scared them so much that they restricted access to very few people. I almost get sad when I hear that. Companies are full of decision-makers who, with a little easily found and consumed information, can in aggregate improve the performance of the company and the satisfaction of its customers and partners. Randy Benz at Energizer calls these people the "difference makers." As performance management solutions become more popular, adding corporate context and control to data access, perhaps that bank will join the other 72 percent previously cited.


Despite all the numeric evidence, my strongest sense about the tipping point is the changing conversation with customers. Recently I spent a few hours reviewing all of the BI slide decks I've delivered over the 10-plus years Microsoft has been working in BI. (Yes, I keep them all. Disks are cheap, and Groove and SharePoint are cool.) Early presentations focus on defining BI. In 1997, every presentation began with the basics.

I also found plenty of decks that simply described BI as the tools and techniques for making better decisions. Other slides in presentations from those early years explained sparse data, aggregates, dimensions, cubes and all other artifacts of OLAP. I could, and often did, explain the nuances of MOLAP versus ROLAP in gory detail. If we ever meet at an event, buy me a drink and we can reminisce about the "good ole days."

One major takeaway from the early presentations is that our audience was very technical and at least somewhat skeptical. BI was new enough that many IT departments were having their initial BI conversations. Frankly, there were so many vendors and no end-to-end vendors that the entire segment seemed very noisy, and the technology was often very different than the day-to-day technology of the time. Ten years ago, BI was a specialty industry. Like all specialty markets, half of the sales job was missionary work.

I meet hundreds of customers every year. It's one of the facets of my job that I enjoy the most. I have not defined BI for a customer or prospect in several years. The whole tenor of the conversation has changed. I have more discussions that are exclusively about business. But more significantly, at least to me, the tenor of the technical conversations is different too. First, customers come prepared to discuss BI, not to learn about BI. The questions I get are deeper, more thoughtful and sometimes more challenging. The question I get most is: how do I get BI into vastly more employees' hands? And naturally I also field the question of how does Microsoft BI meet this need - but that's not the subject of this article. Hit me up separately if you want to discuss Microsoft BI. I might even buy you a drink.

While I haven't compared MOLAP to ROLAP lately, I have had deep conversations about tying scorecards to strategy maps. Scorecards are a prime mechanism to drive BI deeper into companies as they provide both motivation and context for further analysis. By showing interest in SharePoint, BI customers further indicate interest in providing data and tools to broader populations. SharePoint is a key element, in the Microsoft stack at least, for

evolving individual insights into team insights. In conversation after conversation, customers are asking how to take BI to their "masses." Microsoft's vision has always been that pushing BI deeper and wider into companies, the so-called "BI for the masses," results in better companies. Quantitative market research and customers are telling me this dream is coming true. I believe that BI is well along its evolution from specialty tools to mainstream adoption. In other words, we are at the tipping point in BI adoption.

Postscript: Can a tipping point have its own tipping point? I was chatting with my friend Gary O'Connell at TDWI in February. He had asked me how things were going. As I was enthusiastically discussing this new level of conversation with our BI customers, he said, "It's almost like we're at a tipping point ..."

References:

  1. Stephen Swoyer. "Solid Gold: BI, PM Revenues Set to Surge." TDWI.org, April 11, 2007.
  2. Dale Vile. "Too many users fending for themselves on BI." The Register, April 6, 2007.  

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