What’s the big idea?

Business Intelligence: outdated and outdone, or have to have?

1 November 2010
Paul Morgan, Asyst, says the point is rather what, with a bit of context, BI can tell you.

Business intelligence (BI), like many business applications, is either loved or hated by its users. It’s either ‘head over heels I can’t move without it’ or ‘oh no, not that thing’. Whichever side of the divide you’re on, it has certainly entrenched itself in company infrastructures these past 20-odd years. The question is – is it doing any good?

Several criticisms are frequently leveled at BI – that it can only tell you what’s already happened, that the executives meant to be using it to make decisions ignore it as just another pretty icon, and that it’s falling out of fashion as the big names behind it struggle to adjust their applications, and business models, to the wonderful world of always-on, anywhere, anytime, via any device.

So what can it do?

Angelique Hutley, Bytes, says we need to focus on the people aspect.Accenture SA BI lead Theo Spickett says BI is critical. “Given the current economic recovery period, it’s critical to consider business intelligence as integral to achieving sustainable competitive advantage in business. BI is no longer a nice-to-have, but a business imperative for growth in the long term, because it enables the harnessing of information to improve decision-making, financial management, regulatory compliance and customer service.”

It also, he says, enables automation of more mundane decision-making tasks (those with high frequency and low value, as he puts it), and that, in Europe and North America at any rate, is where BI, and analytics, is showing real value.

“In the past,” says Cortell director Greg Bogiages, “business intelligence has referred to a process that enabled improved decision-making through the reporting of historical information. However, BI has undergone a shift and has adapted to meet new demands and assist organisations in making better decisions amid an increasingly volatile market. Decision-makers are now able to use the forecasting capability of modern BI solutions to gauge the effect that different variables – such as an increased petrol or electricity price – will have on their business, and plan accordingly.

Customers don't want a massive data warehouse, says David Ives, IS Partners.“Scenario-planning also improves an organisation’s potential to effectively manage risk, as it highlights variables that must be managed tightly, which, in turn, become KPIs within the business,” he says.

Asyst MD Paul Morgan has a different view: “It can tell you more than what happened but knowing what happened is useful as well. We had a client doing sales reports for its European head office every month. It did these in Excel and it took 12 days to get them after month-end. All those did was say what had happened and they did so beyond the point where anyone could do anything about it. If you apply BI in an intelligent manner or ask different questions, for example, ‘What happened’ versus ‘What was supposed to happen?’, then BI can give context as well as actual facts, which makes it a little bit different. Fact – sales are ten percent off target, but if you look at the same data with context, you can see that the target has been increased 200 percent, or that the sales team has been reduced by 20 percent, and take corrective action.

“The fact that it can tell you what happened so quickly after fact is important too,” he states. “For example, what happened so far this month? Compare that to the month’s target and you can see where you are now and can do something about it.

“We did work years ago for a company with a big plant, where they had injuries and accidents. In an effort to find out why the accidents were happening, we tried to analyse historical data going back years, with little success. By adding context, which included, as it turned out, the phases of the moon, we were able to see that in certain lunar phases, accidents were way up comparatively. We had the data, but needed to visualise it with context, and add a human suggesting using moon phases, before it was useful.”

Look and feel

“The fact that we are still asking these questions 20+ years after BI was developed is an indication that the way in which it has thus far been delivering information and the way in which it is servicing the user, has failed,” says Qlikview’s Davide Hanan.

Bytes principal consultant Angelique Hutley agrees: “We haven’t learned to sell BI to the executives. People sell the technology, not the business vision. We don’t go to a business user and say, ‘We can decrease costs here’, or ‘Your marketing campaigns cost millions, which is being wasted because you’re using the wrong data or have incorrect addresses’, so we’re not selling a business solution to the business.”

According to her, things are changing, albeit slowly.

“People used to see technology as a silver bullet but are realising if you want a BI implementation to drive decision-making, it’s more of a people process than a software and technology process. Twenty-five percent is technology, the rest is going in and doing change management, the soft stuff. We go in and change the way people work and we don’t take into account the fear created, or how people need to change and adapt to the new system.”

Other things are changing too.

“What we’re seeing, from customers, is the concept of BI as an iterative journey,” says Dave Ives, GM for BI at IS Partners. “Customers don’t want a massive data warehouse; they want an information area and they want to take action on it. They want to model what it’s going to look like very quickly, they want us to show them where they can get value and implement three, four, five weeks down the line. Customers are focussed on a subject area – ‘Let’s drive it and then go to a maintenance state’.”

On the other hand, he says: “Fundamentals are still a problem. We still have issues around data governance and garbage in/garbage out. There are still a lot of issues on master data management. We’re seeing a lot of effort going into the undercover work, which clients don’t like. They want the flashy stuff. We sit with clients on a task team saying don’t go for perfect data – go for better than you had before and use your BI interface to identify bad data and data sources. So if you’re a car manufacturer, and the dealers give you bad data, cut their rebates. This will rapidly clear up data integrity issues.”

Going forward

While BI has proven its worth, where it’s been properly implemented, the computing world is moving cloud-wards, which means new ways of working, the browser as the interface, new software licensing models, and business applications that can deliver anything to anyone (authorised), anytime, anywhere, over any device. Can BI keep up?

“Research is saying more people will be using BI on a tablet than a desktop in two to three years,” says Intervate BI competency lead Ian Gatley. “BI is there to provide information, so it needs to be at your fingertips.”

“Cloud changes the way in which people access information,” says Qlikview’s Hanan. “The days of the heavy application, and the dependence on Microsoft as an operating system are being countered. The cloud implies the interface is the web – the operating system doesn’t matter and all applications need to be developed on that basis. With that, platform issues around [BI on] smartphones and iPads become more important. You want a device that can communicate with the cloud, get information and communicate with you in the most flexible way.”

“BI will absolutely be relevant in five years’ time. What it looks like and how it starts to change is anyone’s guess. “Look at the internet, software as a service, how you train people, how we deploy applications – it is all changed by the internet,” says Gary Boddington, MD of Alchemex. “It’s almost unlimited where you could be with the stuff, and it is all within the realm of possibility; it just means designing what the user needs and developing it. BI is going to be about people driving the business and business driving technology rather than the other way around, which it has been to date, and people making the decisions or using the tech don’t get a say. With people getting more tech-savvy, they are going to be saying, ‘This is the information I want, and how I want to use it’, and this will drive technology decisions.”

The age of the consumer is here.