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The Powerful Role of Search in Unstructured Data and BI
BI vendors teaming up with search providers for a reason

by Lyndsay WiseThursday, December 6, 2007

There is much talk about the importance of unstructured data and the use of search within BI to add value to an organization’s analysis capabilities.  Within the past year or so various partnerships between BI vendors and search providers (i.e. Google, FAST, Yahoo!, etc.) have formed to enable organizations the ability to access more information with less hassle.  The question is what is the real return?  What benefits have organizations actually experienced? Has there been real value and, alternatively, what are the shortcomings? 

To provide a full answer to these questions is impossible short of speaking with every organization to identify and benchmark actual ROI and pitfalls.  Realistically, answers can only be aggregated based on case studies, industry input, discussions with a number of organizations, etc.  However, the perceived value of search can be identified to move beyond simple market hype.  To identify what value search adds to BI applications, this article explores what search offers organizations, its inherent benefits, and challenges.

What is the added perceived value?

Despite the recent hype and the continued importance unstructured data will occupy within BI, organizations need to understand the value of integrating search within their current BI framework.  According to Joshua Greenbaum, Principal and founder of Enterprise Applications Consulting in Berkely, “Using unstructured data is what search is all about, what social computing was always been hyped to facilitate...unstructured data is proliferated on the Internet: from buy/sell data on thousands of marketplaces to the blogs and wikis and web sites that traffic in terabytes of data, without a single index field to unify them.” For businesses, this means that much of the information required to make decisions is not found within traditional relational databases, making it difficult for organizations to make truly informed decisions.  Additionally, this highlights the fact that the role social media plays in an organization’s use of technology is becoming more prevalent.

Organizations constantly look for ways to make better decisions and to increase the efficiency of internal processes to save people time and the organization money. Organizations use BI to help make better decisions and use search to get faster access to more information.  This ties both to increased value for the organization, providing that each is aligned with some set of metrics.  For instance, unless an end user knows what they are looking for and why, the ability to access more information can be overwhelming as opposed to being providing additional insight. 

Ease of Use and End User Buy-In

As organizations move towards process-centered applications, the ability to use internal applications in the same way as social media increases perceptions of ease of use.  In this case, the use of search becomes central in the process.   Knowledge workers use the Internet extensively in their private lives to shop for books, keep in touch with friends and family, plan and book vacations, etc.  Centralized portals and search bridge the gap between an employee’s private and professional life.  Simply put, the easier an application is to use, the easier it is to attain end user adoption.  Since the perception of BI’s ease of use is low, the move towards embedding search within business intelligence increases the usability of BI, thus expanding its use within the organization.

Ease of use cannot be underestimated.  Although search results may not yield the desired results, and end users may not know exactly how to sift through information to get the best results, use of search alone gives end users access to more information than they would have through BI use alone and in a format that has become almost second nature.  Because attaining buy-in is difficult, organizations can lessen hostility to change by implementing solutions that match end users’ comfort zones. 

Organization Wide Access

Operational BI and BI for the masses are two trends within business intelligence that push the concept of organization wide use of BI and place emphasis on expanding the number of users within the organization.  In this case, use of search allows anyone in the organization access to ready-made reports, graphs, charts, and unstructured information associated with the entered text string.  This, couple with ease of use, enables the deployment of an organization wide solution, with security options, to bring business intelligence to all decisions makers within the organization. 

Although search brings information to the masses, organizations should be aware that it does not necessarily bring BI to the masses (Please refer to the following article for more information:  http://www.dmreview.com/news/1092169-1.html), as there is a big difference between information access and the ability to drive decision making activities based on search results.  With this said, many organizations use search as the first step towards organization wide BI.

More Available Information

BI applications generally restrict access based on user licenses and security.  Search takes into account security restrictions limiting information access when appropriate.  Even though this is the case, organizations can also add non-BI information and additional data access points to enable organization wide search as well as expand to external information sources to allow access to operational systems and industry based information – whether in the form of competitive information or external research databases.  In general, giving end users access to more information is powerful providing the end user initiating the search uses these tools to find the information required to answer questions related to business issues.

Some General Challenges

The benefits of BI search can also be argued as its challenges.  For instance, information overload may not give end users the information they require to make better decisions.  Search result rankings do not always follow an order of importance relevant to end users and as such, searching through endless amounts of information is not desirable.  Additionally, retrieving sales results by region may limit the analysis required unless end users can drill through reports to analyze the reasons behind why one geographic region may have outperformed another.  


Benefits of BI search include ease of use, BI use expansion within the organization, and access to more information.  These uses push BI from the world of IT towards a broader focus on the business and the information needs of business units.  End users can access information intuitively without knowing they are using or accessing business intelligence.  However, organizations should still realize that there is no quick fix to developing the proper set of analyses to help improve the organization’s decision making capabilities. 


About the Author

Lyndsay Wise is a senior research analyst for the business intelligence and business performance management space. For more than seven years she has assisted clients in business systems analysis, software selection and implementation of enterprise applications. She is a monthly columnist for DMReview and writes reviews of leading technologies, products and vendors in business intelligence, data integration, business performance management and customer data integration.

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