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The Future of BI
Are dashboards pointing the way?

by Tom Gonzalez, Managing Director of BrightPoint Consulting, Inc. , www.brightpointinc.comWednesday, June 18, 2008

At a recent summit of Business Intelligence experts, hosted by Dashboard Insight, one of the questions posed to the panel I was sitting on was "Whither BI, what is the future of BI?" This is a question that has been steadily plaguing me over the past several years, and one of the reasons why I had consciously started to focus my attention on the dashboard side of the business. After engaging in many well-intentioned and executed BI projects that yielded mediocre results at best, I started to wonder "Is BI broken? Is there a better way?" At the time I saw a focus on dashboards solving many of the inherent problems that I had recognized in the traditional approach to BI, because a greater emphasis was put on solving user problems versus data ones. Over the course of delivering nearly a hundred unique dashboard solutions I came to adopt what I refer to as a user-centric approach to business intelligence design. Some people also refer to this as a top-down approach, which lies in stark contrast to the traditional bottom-up or data-centric approach used today in most significant business intelligence projects.

How we got to where we are:

At this point it might be helpful to talk a bit about the history of BI and the shifting user base it has been designed to target. The bottom-up (data-centric) approach to BI started when the primary goal of business intelligence was solving the engineering and architectural challenges of integrating and reporting against a company's internal data that was often siloed in a few large data repositories that were generated by their various critical business software such as the accounting, sales, and inventory systems. The focus of these efforts was creating data structures that data analysts could do rudimentary reporting on and analytics. When business users needed answers to questions like "what are our top 10 selling products versus our top 10 most profitable products" the data analysts could then design reports that tied together the accounting data with sales and inventory data. The primary users of these systems were trained data analysts who served as a human bridge between the business users and the specialized tools designed to access the back end BI systems.

In an effort to create reporting systems that gave a small specialized group of data analysts the ability to generate a myriad of reports for a diverse set of business needs, the focus was on designing highly flexible systems that anticipated a wide array of abstract business requirements. The BI industry responded accordingly by developing the necessary tooling to extract, transform, process, organize, and analyze these abstract data structures, and thus we saw the emergence of ETL tools, Data Warehouses, OLAP cubes, as well as many other specialized technologies. Up to this point, the innovation in BI was really focused on how data was managed and manipulated. Technologies were invented and methodologies developed and espoused, in some cases with an almost religious fervor. But in this early period of BI, during the emergence and development of BI as a discipline, one key ingredient was conspicuously missing: the end-user who was the ultimate beneficiary of this "intelligence."

Where we are today:

Cut to today, and we find ourselves in a surprisingly different environment. Business and technology have been radically altered in many unexpected and significant ways through humanity's adoption of the internet during the mid to late 1990's. We now find ourselves in a highly dynamic and connected environment where business moves at a much faster pace, requiring that decisions be made faster and with more accuracy. We also are faced with exponential growth in the volume of data we produce, collect, analyze and are forced to interact with. Not only has the amount of data grown significantly, it is also far more distributed and heterogeneous than it ever was. Companies no longer have their critical business data stored in just a few large systems, but they also receive important business data from many ever-changing outside sources that the company may have little or no control over.

As BI has evolved over the past twenty years and has tried to keep pace with these ever more complex set of business and technology conditions, there has been more and more attention on enabling business users with direct access to these business intelligence tools. The first of these end user tools came in the form of static or canned reports that users could access directly, followed by the invention of "ad hoc" reports that gave users WYSIWYG tools to create their own reports against pre-determined data structures, and we now have progressed to easy-to-understand highly visual dynamic dashboard displays. The phrase "BI for the masses" has come into vogue over the past couple years, but unfortunately BI as an industry is still correctly perceived by the business community as having very little success in achieving this vision. BI tools are still considered too hard to use, too long to implement, and costing too much. Why is this?

Obviously there are real technology and business process challenges that we must overcome to accommodate the volume and pace of data generated by our internet enabled global economy and business conditions, but I believe the primary challenge we are facing is the BI industry itself. At the risk of being lambasted by the cadre of established industry gurus I would like to posit the thesis that the large BI companies and the recognized "experts" are actually hindering the very innovation and processes that would most benefit business and increase the efficacy of these tools. I make this statement because I believe too much of the focus is still being placed on collecting, manipulating and managing data when it really should be put on how users interact with the data, and what business conditions they are trying to improve via this interaction.

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Discussion:

Alexander Chiang said:

Tom,

I absolutely agree with your opinion that the next phase of BI will be the user experience.

Even in software, all too often technologies drive the design, where it should be the business need. This definitely applies to Dashboards and BI.

/alex

Mark Flaherty said:

Tom,

This was a real eye-opener for me in thinking about all the BI offerings out there and the unnecessary pain and expense people have been going through. I can even see why I haven't read anything like this before because of the fear an editor might have of alienating a potential advertiser or industry source. Great article.

Mark

Peter Traynor said:

I can't say we didn't worry about that possibility Mark. But, in the end, if we let people like Tom speak the (sometimes painful) truth then advertisers will realize this is a place they want to be -- where there is the integrity to say it like it is.

- The Editor

Tom Gonzalez said:

Mark,

I am truly encouraged to hear that in reading the article, it has given someone like yourself a different perspective by which to evaluate how things are being done in BI. This is an article I have wanted to write for awhile, but it has taken a bit of time to gather the courage to publicly state the things that I have been saying in private for years.

When I started to hear other BI industry experts with far more experience in the traditional approaches than myself start to echo these sentiments I knew the time was ripe to bring this issue out into the open.

With organizations like Dashboard Insight, who are truly interested in advancing the state of BI it helps to provide an environment that is conducive to making these types of statements and open up a discourse within the industry.

If other readers are interested in re-publishing this article, I am all for it, whatever it takes to get the message out, just contact me at tgonzalez [at] brightpointinc.com

James Taylor said:

Tom
Posted a response at http://www.ebizq.net/blogs/decision_management/2008/07/dashboards_are_not_the_future.php

Hope you enjoy it
JT

James Taylor
Author, with Neil Raden, of Smart (Enough) Systems

Marketing Team BIME said:

It's interesting to read articles like this one and see what people think about the future of BI now, 2 years later. Here's a summary of some LinkedIn activity on the same subject: http://bit.ly/cloybD

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