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Six BI Trends You Can’t Ignore

by Michael Corcoran, http://www.informationbuilders.comWednesday, April 22, 2009

Business intelligence (BI) technology has had a tremendous impact on decision-making activities at most companies. In the last several years, it has become one of the most commonly deployed software technologies in the business world, helping executives, managers, and professional analysts stay in touch with current activities.

From an end-user standpoint, however, BI technology is only beginning to reach its potential. In this article, I identify six ways to boost BI adoption rates and drive greater return on your BI investments.

1 - Serve A Wider Audience

For years we have been hearing about how BI is moving out to the masses. Vendors are making their BI software more accessible to casual users, and customers are creating BI applications that reach a broad spectrum of the user population. The more consumers of information you have, the greater the value you will obtain from your BI efforts.

To truly deliver BI to everyone in your organization, you have to be able to provide users with a high degree of sophistication via a very simple interface that requires no training. When it comes to reporting, developers should create universal, parameter-driven reports that offer thousands of potential outputs—without requiring users to understand how to use a BI “tool” at all. Successful BI practitioners follow this “guided ad hoc” approach to make business intelligence easy to digest, guiding users to the answers they need. Also, each menu or form should include a subscription or scheduling option, so users can request regular updates via e-mail.

Once the right information is made easily available, everybody in the organization becomes a potential decision maker, whether they work in customer service, shipping, manufacturing, finance, or just about any other area. Whether you call it "consumer BI," "pervasive BI," or "BI for the masses," the focus has shifted from BI professionals, who need complex tools to create and analyze information, to everyday workers who simply want to access content in meaningful ways.

2 – Deliver Active Information

While there will always be a need for professional BI tools that analysts seek out when they need to slice and dice information, the new face of BI involves delivering actionable information to users within the context of their every-day activities.

For example, a call center representative might receive an alert advising her about new discounts on popular products, so she can pitch those products to customers. A sales manager might depend on insight from a BI system to spot orders above a certain value, then recommend a premium supplier based on current promotions and availability. Meanwhile, sales reps might receive updates about customer issues involving their accounts, while production managers obtain alerts about escalating order volumes that impact an assembly line.

As BI becomes more operational in nature, it must also become more prescient. These workers shouldn’t have to run reports or even submit queries. The information should find them when it is relevant. Instead of backward facing—tell me where I have been—business intelligence applications should be designed to react to operational activities.
 
These real-time BI environments often involve changing a process based on an inline analysis embedded in that process. This lets business users 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.

Embedded integration technology supplies the nuts and bolts of these dynamic BI applications: accessing data, routing messages, synchronizing business events, and committing transactions based on a pre-defined workflow. This enables those applications to” listen” for events, determine which actions to take according to pre-determined thresholds, or forward the information to a live agent to make an instant decision.

3 – Deploy BI as a Service

As BI environments get more active and operational, BI capabilities often take the form of services that can be displayed through portals, dashboards, and other types of business processes. These service-oriented BI applications open up a whole new dimension for the BI industry, as companies apply their domain expertise to a particular industry or vertical.

For example, in addition to helping companies manage HR and payroll, some professional employer organizations are also offering to host this data for you and provide analytic capabilities so you can run reports against it. We’re seeing a similar trend with clearing firms that offer BI capabilities to broker-dealers and their investment professionals, as well as from credit card companies that let merchants analyze transaction data to understand customer-buying patterns.

What do all these BI applications have in common? They are deployed as services to an existing customer base. More importantly, they all take what was traditionally a cost center and turn it into a profit center.

While some BI vendors are starting to deploy their basic tools in a software-as-a-service environment, I believe there is even greater potential to create and deploy individual BI applications as services. Tomorrow’s application service providers won’t be BI vendors, but creative developers who understand a business domain and create turnkey analytic environments for their customers.

4 – Integrate Enterprise Search Technology

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. 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. This enables users to access dynamic business intelligence content in addition to structured and unstructured data sources throughout the enterprise.
 
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. For example, you might want to locate all references to a part number across all databases, transactions, and dynamically generated reports. Or you might want to know everything your company has done with a particular customer in the last month. Has he been on the phone with your call center? Is his maintenance contract current?

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 business intelligence information gets archived, which limits the usefulness of this model. By using embedded integration technology, the BI environment can take these searches to a whole new level. For example, when a transaction is processed by your ERP system, it can feed the information to the search index, so users can immediate find the data when they initiate searches. These users might begin with free form, Google-style searches, and then reach into the associated transactions and databases to find additional information, correlating events as they go along.

5 – Give BI Legs With Mobile Analytics

Today’s “smart phones” have screens and keyboards that make it easier to access and display rich web content. As mobile workers get a taste of the capabilities of these devices they are requesting access to corporate data. If they can send email or browse the web on their phones, why can’t they check the latest sales results or request an inventory report as well?

John Hagerty of AMR Research thinks mobile devices are better for alerting people to events and linking them to high-level metrics than they are for submitting queries and running reports. “We’re in the early stages as we figure out what type of BI content is actually consumable by a business user through today’s mobile technology,” he notes. 1

Clearly, developers of mobile BI applications should remember a few ground rules. Since the memory and processing power of most mobile devices cannot match those of desktops and laptops, it is critical to deliver only the most relevant information. Developers should pay special attention to the tiny displays on smart phones, which are best for mini scorecard-type reports.

Architecturally, mobile BI applications shouldn’t require users to install any extra software on their mobile device. This is the paradigm Apple is popularizing with the iPhone. Developers take notice: the ideal scenario is to create centralized, web-based BI applications that can easily receive requests and feed information back to mobile users. Their clients shouldn’t require any special software other than a standard web browser.

Of course, displaying reports and alerts is only the start. To realize the full potential of a mobile business intelligence solution, users need to be able to analyze data as well.
Some BI vendors have created “active” reports and dashboards that combine data and analytics into a lightweight HTML display. Active reports include a payload of data so users can create charts, populate tables, and slice-and-dice selected information from the server even while disconnected from the network.

6 – Don’t Be Wed to Data Warehouses

Data warehouses should not be implemented without a clear understanding of the business challenges they are designed to solve. There are many ways to deliver accurate, timely information. Analyze each business challenge to determine whether a data warehouse or another type of information-access solution is in order.

Here are a few alternatives to consider:

  • Deriving data directly from operational sources (or a copy of those sources established for reporting)
  • Trickle-feeding data into a warehouse as particular transactions occur
  • Generating information triggered by certain events in a database
  • Using Web services to create reports and deliver information directly to business users

Today’s dynamic, operational, and embedded BI applications prove that you don’t always need a data warehouse as the source for your BI activities. Evaluate the needs of your organization, and then select the data-integration option that best meets your requirements. You might save months or even years of costly development work.

Conclusion

Today’s BI environments give companies a new way to serve customers, interact with business partners, and deliver information to all types of users—in some cases creating entirely new lines of business. BI doesn’t merely involve building a data warehouse and turning users loose with general-purpose reporting tools. It entails a pervasive framework that engages a broad slice of the organization using simple yet powerful analysis capabilities that can be embedded in familiar work routines.

BI developers should strive to make their applications more accessible via real-time data access, mobile analytics and enterprise search—ideally as part of a service-oriented architecture. This will allow BI to reach a broader audience.

Note:
1 Information Builders Magazine, Winter 2008 (http://www.informationbuilders.com/new/magazine/v18-1/index.html).

About the Author

Michael Corcoran is vice president and chief communications officer for Information Builders. With more than 15 years' experience in the software industry, he is responsible for working with the executive management team to develop and communicate corporate and product strategy. You can reach the author at michael_corcoran@ibi.com

This article originally appeared in TDWI's BI This Week e-newsletter (www.tdwi.org) and is used by permission.

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