As you read this in November 2006, Microsoft SQL Server 2005 will have had its first birthday. The adoption rate has been fantastic. The customer feedback is gratifying. The business is growing dramatically. At the same time, Microsoft Office 2007 is on the verge of public release. Together, these products comprise Microsoft's business intelligence (BI) platform.

Trust Your Data

When companies use BI to better understand their business and customers, their first requirement is to trust their data. Nothing in BI works well if you don't trust your data. Is it clean? Integrated? Consistent? Up to date? Is it safe and secure? Is it always available, without undue delay, even for complicated queries? Is it accurate? Does it reflect your business logic? Cleansing, storing and serving trusted data is SQL Server's role in the Microsoft BI stack. The relational engine is the core. SQL Server Integration Services addresses data integration and quality. SQL Server Analysis Services adds an end-user (multidimensional) view and business logic with high performance. SQL Server Reporting Services provides broad distribution for consumers and end-user report authoring.

Trust Your Insights

If trusting your data is core, trusting the insights your employees gain from data is the next priority for most companies. This requires tools that your users find familiar and easy to use. We have a wide variety of reporting and analysis tools for end users. Frankly, some focus more on visuals than on true insights. But many of the available tools truly help users gain insight into the business by being discoverable, easy to use and highly functional.

In Office 2007, you will see Microsoft, particularly with Excel 2007, step into that arena. The Microsoft partners that supply rich tools based on Analysis Services will continue to play an important role, providing variety, specialization or both. Companies that want to promote insights from their employees will work to make data in the data platform discoverable. The Microsoft Office Server System, particularly via SharePoint and the Business Data Catalog, promotes the discovery and sharing of relevant data inside companies.

So in this column about what's new, what's new?

Trust Your Decisions

Companies and organizations need to move beyond trusting data and individual insights to trusting their business decisions. I don't mean the big, strategic meta-decisions. I mean every decision anyone in the company makes. If the cost and trouble of data warehousing and BI have value, that value is to promote better decision-making, by more people, locally, in the moment and in the context of the company's business and policies.

The application that sits above the data warehouse and the end-user tools and fulfills this mission is often called

performance management. The news here is that Microsoft is entering this market with a product called PeformancePoint Server 2007. I left the SQL Server team in December 2005 to lead the development of this product. While I loved working in SQL, I've always known that for Microsoft to be a complete BI vendor, we would have to add performance management to our stack. Performance management enhances BI by making it more complete, more corporate and more accountable.

I use the word "complete" to mean two things. First, well-grounded decision-making needs complete subject-area perspective. For example, analyzing sales data without cost data likely leads to different actions than using the more complete perspective. We have plenty of sales analysis systems. We make plenty of decisions about when and where and to whom to advertise. But sometimes the right decision is to close the store! That is, optimizing sales strategy for your most expensive outlet might not be the correct decision. Offering decision-makers a complete set of financial, operational and sales data leads to better decisions - provided, of course, that we already trust that data and the tools our users rely on for better insight.

The other meaning of complete involves supporting the cycle of monitoring, analyzing and planning. Analysis for the sake of analysis has driven a lot of BI investments. Analysis in context leads to better, more relevant decisions. Monitoring via scorecards, dashboards and alerts creates demand for analysis. The results of analysis should be decisions that drive modification of plans. Can we, or should we, have people in our companies that just do analysis? Of course! We call them analysts! Yet, our opportunity is to enable every manager and every employee to do the right amount of analysis at the right time with the right data easily, so as to effect far broader and far timelier decision-making across the board. Every employee should have access to scorecards, which should in turn lead simply to data and tools to do analysis when required.

Making BI more corporate is key. Again, we have two parts. The first relates to the data. We need to supply decision-makers with data that reflects the full operation of the corporation. To extend the previous example, the profitability analysis of a single store that ignores corporate or regional expenses is incomplete. The financial operations of consolidation, allocation and interorganizational eliminations provide the data we need to make decisions in the corporate context.

The second part of corporate BI relates to business rules and the decision-making and approval process. Trusting decisions requires those decisions to fit within the company's business rules and within its business process. That may be as simple as maximum discount rates or as complex as the process for approving a budget. The performance management application has to understand and implement corporate controls and processes. Typical BI tools do not do this.

It is time for BI to become more accountable. We've all appropriately focused on compliance and auditing over the past several years. The flip side of that coin is accountability. Accountability in BI means write-back. That's a technical term meaning we record the decisions made and compare actual results to expected results. We know who took which action, when and who approved. A well-defined performance management application presents users with the data they need and no more.

I'm excited about the potential of performance management to amplify the value companies achieve from their data warehouse and BI investments. I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments. I'm at billbak@microsoft.com!

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