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One-on-One with Mark Flaherty of Inetsoft

by Lyndsay WiseTuesday, March 10, 2009

Last month I conducted an interview with Klipfolio to explore the value of desktop dashboards and to get a general feel for the diversity of solutions available in the market.  To offset the desktop dashboard view of the world we turn to Mark Flaherty, Vice President of Marketing at InetSoft Technology. In the interview below, Mark identifies InetSoft’s key differentiators and benefits, how Web-based solutions differ from their desktop counterparts, and general market trends within the data visualization space.

Lyndsay Wise: What do you feel are InetSoft’s key differentiators?

Mark Flaherty: The first key differentiator I would point to is data mashups, or being able to combine data that was not already pre-modeled, or even already in the enterprise data warehouse. The first step in visualization, as well as in publishing, is to assemble and transform data so that it is clean and ready to be explored. With InetSoft’s technology, dashboards are not only a usable final product, but also a tool for mashing up imported or disparate data sources in a Lego block fashion. We haven’t seen anyone else approach this level of data mashup.

The next thing I would mention is that we offer sophisticated publishing capabilities as part of our visualization solution. In many cases, visualization specialists have not built out reporting and distribution capabilities, or reporting companies exist without advanced visualization. We aim to do both very well as the two are seamlessly connected.

The last differentiator to mention is one that appeals to companies that believe in a pure Web-based, or zero-client solution. Our technology architecture, going back to the company’s first product, is designed from the ground up on open standards Web technology. From data transformation to presentation, our technology provides a completely integrated Web experience.

LW: Do you think that desktop dashboards offer a viable alternative to their Web-based counterparts?

MF: Desktop dashboards certainly have a place. But I sense that it’s a smaller place now than before. If you look at the trends in the software industry, look at SaaS or cloud computing especially, those solutions dictate that a dashboard be engineered in a Web-based architecture from the ground up. I’d also say that the Web development technologies have basically caught up with what you used to only be able to do in a desktop app – namely give a very rich interface and make it highly responsive. So I think that is accelerating the move to Web-based solutions – which already had a strong attraction due the lower IT or support cost around deployment and maintenance.

LW: How do organizations benefit from a horizontal approach to dashboards?

MF: The fact is every single organization is different. Even within the same vertical each company will have its own take on the sales process, for instance, and will capture different bits of information, labeling statuses and fields differently. So making some universally useful dashboard is not effective because 90% of the time the customer comes back and says “Can I add field X to this dashboard?”, or “Can I change the orientation of this chart because that’s how we’re used to looking at it?” So we first aim at offering easy to use development tools in a drag and drop environment, with no high-level programming or SQL skills needed. Second, we aim to make it easy for end-users to tweak their dashboards without needing a user guide.

LW: How can InetSoft help Salesforce.com customers?

MF: The dashboards and reports that come for free with salesforce are really basic, and their users go so far as to say they are awkward and unattractive to use, in presentation, for instance. Salesforce realizes they cannot be expert developers in every realm, which is why they created the AppExchange partner network. So in this case, we are where people turn when they become dissatisfied, and they are seeking attractive and easy to use dashboards and reports. People tell stories about how they spend an entire day each week manually pulling information together and then copying it into Excel to make a decent chart to present internally. With our app, they can design that chart online exactly as they like it, and have it update automatically each week with the latest data. Now they spend about 10 minutes exporting that chart to PowerPoint, and they are done.

We offer more than just pretty charts, though. We have created some really useful pre-built interactive dashboards for things like analyzing sales pipelines or measuring marketing campaigns. And one more twist we offer is that we build up a history database of all the changes to a company’s salesforce.com data so that interesting analyses can be done.  For example, showing all of the opportunities that are in the pipeline longer than average, or identifying if my sales cycle shorter or longer than it was a year ago.

LW: What are the top three trends you see happening in data visualization?

MF: Early visualization products, not surprisingly, were geared towards academics and analysts. Now, they are becoming usable by business users. And I do not just mean offering dashboards. True visualization means interactivity and data exploration, and that is just starting to become approachable to business users. One reason this is smart is that business users know their business best, and they are more likely to discover meaningful and actionable insights, et cetera, than an analyst, who is a step removed from the external world. So, if you can give them an easy enough to use visualization app, then you will have success. A second reason is efficiency. So many questions business users have are ad hoc, and change every month or week, so you wind up with the never-ending backlog of custom report requests. With a visualization solution, you can provide a large number of self-service slicing and dicing capabilities with simple drop-downs and check boxes. A few pre-built interactive dashboards essentially replace 80 or 90% of those custom report needs.

Another trend centers on integration and embedding. Visualization is becoming a mainstream technology. Now that every business application provides reporting as a module, people expect more graphical and interactive information access to come with those applications. Therefore, visualization is going in the same direction as reporting did. You will not only see visualization as a stand-alone BI application, but those interactive dashboards and visual analyses will be seamless features of every application that processes or captures data, whether it’s a SaaS one or on-premise one. This integration is not simply dropping a visual component into a user interface. It is a 360-degree integration into the app’s data, security, and infrastructure.

The third trend I’ll mention is something we call “visual data transformation.” Usually you think of visualization as just that final presentation and interaction layer. Data collection and transformation is left alone as a separate, manual process to figure out. But we see the benefit of integrating the visualization designer tool with the data access tool. Now, you break down the inefficiencies and obstacles of keeping them separate. Even in the design mode, with visualization you might discover a need to transform or mashup data, and you would be stuck because the data warehouse does not support it. So with visual data transformation, you can bring in that external data or make visual drag-and-drop connections among fields and tables, experimenting along the way to see what it looks like, and come up with really useful visualizations for end-users to interact with. You can eliminate the extra effort and pain around figuring out all your visualization requirements in advance, documenting them all for the database people to work on, and waiting for weeks or months for it be delivered.

LW: What do you feel is essential for potential customers to know about InetSoft?

MF: Probably our company history.  We started in 1996, so we are not newcomers to the information access space. We have a lot of experience learning how businesses and solution providers need to work with data so that we are able to anticipate where this technology needs to go. Also, we have never needed to acquire other technologies to catch up, for instance, in a given area, so our customers get a better integrated solution than the bigger vendors provide and for a much more reasonable investment. The last thing I would like to mention is that a main goal of ours is for our company be easy to work with and for our software to be easy to use. We make a free evaluation version of our software downloadable from inetsoft.com. You can either use the included evaluation guide, or we can help you, whichever you prefer.

About the Author

Lyndsay Wise is an industry analyst for business intelligence. For over seven years, she has assisted clients in business systems analysis, software selection and implementation of enterprise applications. Lyndsay is the channel expert for BI for the Mid-Market at B-eye-Network and conducts research of leading technologies, products and vendors in business intelligence, marketing performance management, master data management, and unstructured data. She can be reached at lwise@wiseanalytics.com. And please visit Lyndsay's blog at myblog.wiseanalytics.com.

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