The Road To Making BI Available To Everyone

Feb 22, 2008 (07:02 PM EST)

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Widespread use of business intelligence applications and tools has been the rallying cry of BI vendors for more than a decade, and yet we're nowhere close to making that a reality.

On average, only 25% of workers use BI, according to a survey of 513 companies that I did with Intelligent Enterprise for my book, Successful Business Intelligence. The tools themselves are partially to blame for lackluster adoption, along with company cultures that encourage gut-feel decision making, allow information hoarding, or let IT departments keep data locked away. Blame also rests with a failure to convey the value of BI to business execs, some of whom are confused about how it differs from the ERP system reports and manual spreadsheets they use now.

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Yet some companies are finding ways to use BI to better understand and reap value from data to deliver best-in-class service, boost revenue, and increase operating efficiencies. BI is pervasive at these companies, used not only by business analysts, but also by front-line employees and even customers and suppliers.

For BI to be used by more employees and by employees in a wider range of job types within a company, several roads must converge. First, businesses have to fully appreciate the gold mine of data they're amassing. Vendors need to provide lower-cost ways to license and deploy BI. And, while only a small segment of employees need to be business intelligence experts, BI interfaces have to let data be presented in a multitude of ways in whatever interface is optimal and most familiar. However, pervasive BI requires more than technology innovations; it demands information be relevant and aligned with users' motivations and incentives. It's up to the business and IT to work together more closely to make that happen.

Smarter, Better, Faster

BI makes companies smarter, better, and faster. This kind of value-add requires a proactive approach, but, with the frenetic pace at many companies, such opportunities get overlooked or are seen as optional. A mail-order business may grind to a halt if the order-entry system crashes, but not if BI fails. This is where competitive forces are driving BI. In an era when customers can get product information online, finding ways to provide better service and lower prices is the key to survival. BI enables this.

Many companies deploy BI tools predominantly to business analysts and power users. 1-800 Contacts, the world's largest supplier of mail-order contact lenses, is an exception. It began its BI initiative with front-line workers, call center agents who directly influence sales; now more than 60% of its employees use BI.

1-800 Contacts faces stiff competition from the eye doctors who write the contact lens prescriptions it relies on for business, so the company's service and price has to be better than that of the prescribers. That's where BI comes in: A call center dashboard lets agents see what a customer has ordered in the past, recommend complementary products, and predict when the customer will need to reorder. Agents also can track their own performance on the dashboard.

Agents were "clamoring for information," says Dave Walker, VP of operations, and what they complained about most was having "to wait until the next morning to look at a piece of paper taped to the wall to see how they were performing." The week the dashboard went live, the company saw an immediate lift in sales, says senior analyst Christopher Coon.

For BI to become pervasive, companies must first see data as a strategic asset to be exploited. This requires a mix of vision, faith, and creativity. There are signs that BI is becoming a must-have business tool that's no longer strictly optional. The spate of recent vendor acquisitions--Oracle-Hyperion, SAP-Business Objects, and IBM-Cognos--as well as Microsoft's new PerformancePoint offering reflect BI's increasingly strategic importance.

BI Your Way

Pervasive BI requires matching the BI interface with the appropriate group of users. Many people associate BI with business analysts who rely on query tools and OLAP. Front-line workers would never have the time or need to learn these complex interfaces. Instead, BI embedded into their operational applications is the way to deliver it.

For example, Continental Airlines gate agents rely on business intelligence to identify which OnePass Elite passengers should receive a complementary upgrade. Data is presented within the flight check-in application so agents don't have to launch a separate tool.

Many BI vendors leverage Excel and PowerPoint as paths to pervasive BI. Corporate Express, which provides office supplies to businesses, capitalized on MicroStrategy Office's integration with PowerPoint to let its salespeople access customer account data through familiar PowerPoint slides they can refresh as needed.

chart: Who's Who Using BI?
While improvements in the interfaces let companies offer BI to more employees, Web-based BI has been the biggest driver behind expanding use. Companies that want to make BI pervasive have to be on the latest software releases to benefit from improvements. The Web lets them bring on large groups of users at the click of a mouse. Web-based tools also let companies extend BI beyond corporate boundaries. At Corporate Express, over 10,000 customers are able to access, refresh, and analyze their purchase information via a Web browser.

Rich internet applications are transforming once static Web-based BI from boring to fun. By embedding Xcelsius Flash files with Crystal Reports 2008, Business Objects' report consumers can perform what-if analysis via simple sliders within a gauge animation and immediately visualize the impact via dynamic charts. MicroStrategy's Enterprise Dashboards have introduced Flash and advanced visualizations, letting users see trends in the form of bubbles dancing across a page as the time period changes. This month, Business Objects launched Polestar, which blends the simplicity of search (think Google) with an iTunes-like interface to enable data exploration for even the most novice user. Such approaches make BI more appealing, which is critical when you're trying to change the way people work and make decisions.

Affordable Enterprise BI

For BI to be pervasive, it has to be affordable. Conventional licensing models with high per-user costs--typically over $1,000 per user--stand in the way of this goal.

Microsoft's expanding presence in the BI market has driven down pricing by bundling a breadth of capabilities with the SQL Server database. Other vendors have rethought their licensing models as well.

Ace Hardware recently switched BI vendors to Information Builders, which doesn't require a license for report users--only the core server and report developers need to be licensed. Its Active Reports uses Ajax to deliver reports with a high degree of interactivity (chart, sort, filter, pivot), without requiring a connection back to a BI server. This approach makes BI affordable to deploy to field and store personnel, says Ace software engineering consultant Brian Cook.

Conducive Technology's FlightStats, which provides real-time and historical flight data, recently switched to open source BI vendor JasperSoft. FlightStats' original customers were airlines, and using licensed commercial BI software made sense. But as the company began offering travelers access to flight data, conventional licensing costs for the more than a million consumers per month became prohibitive, and it had to find an alternative.

5 Steps To Better BI

Think Big: Don't think of BI as synonymous with query tools; instead, think about how information can be used to improve everything about your business.

Start Small: A focused project will yield a fast win, garner executive enthusiasm, and provide greater insight into BI's complexities.

Foster Business-IT Partnership: Learn what drives the business. Staff BI teams jointly with business and tech experts.

Clean Up: If your source systems are a mess, your BI platform will be, too. Use a data governance program to improve data integrity.

Provide A Portfolio Of Tools: BI interfaces are optimized for different users and applications. Don't underestimate the importance of interface appeal.

Established vendors and startups also are turning to software as a service to cut BI deployment and staffing costs. Business Objects (now part of SAP) launched in 2006, providing the infrastructure for publishing and sharing reports. Specialty BI SaaS vendors such as LucidEra, PivotLink, and Oco offer pre-built, hosted extractions and applications, ideal for companies with minimal IT staffing.

Many companies started with BI as departmental initiatives and have transformed those deployments into mission-critical enterprise apps. Deploying BI across the business brings economies of scale, reducing development and infrastructure costs. Yet vendors have largely failed to provide enterprise-class admin tools. Some vendors, such as MicroStrategy and Oracle with its BI Enterprise Edition (formerly Siebel Analytics), have paid more attention to administrative features, and IBM's Cognos 8.3, launched in January, greatly improves this aspect. Large-scale deployments will otherwise rely on management tools from third-party vendors such as Teleran.

Rethinking BI

The final road to pervasive BI has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the way companies must rethink who benefits from BI. In defining BI requirements, the IT department will often ask users what they want or just respond to whoever shouts the loudest. The challenge here is that users rarely know what they want until they see it and may not realize the problems BI can solve. In extending BI to people who don't know what it is, BI experts need to flip the requirements definition process from "What do you want?" to "Here's information relevant to your job."

Doctors, for example, aren't typical BI users. Their primary focus is on improving patient care. The first step is making sure patients get treated in a timely way, particularly in emergency rooms where patients with non-life-threatening illnesses will walk out when they've waited too long. Preventing that is critical for Emergency Medical Associates, which provides emergency medical services to hospitals and other health care providers. It uses BusinessObjects XI to let doctors and hospital administrators measure patient wait times, time to discharge, and return visits to get a complete view of emergency room efficiency and quality.

"When we first show them the dashboards, there's a wow factor," says Eric Bachenheimer, director of client solutions. "We know it's successful when hospitals proactively request things, because it shows they're thinking about how to use this information."

In making BI relevant to new groups of users, the business and IT have to work together. To foster this partnership, some companies use agile development techniques in which technology and business experts build applications collaboratively. Agile development is one of the reasons for 1-800 Contacts' BI success, according to Walker. "We're virtually one team," he says. "There's partnership, high trust, and it's collaborative. It's not 'make a list, send it over.' It's very iterative. It takes a lot of time and effort, but the end product is well worth it."

BI competency centers, when staffed by both technical and business experts who provide BI services to business units, help foster these relationships. They model data, extract it from source systems, evaluate and purchase BI tools, build BI apps, and promote best practices.

It's these sorts of approaches that will put pervasive BI within reach. Companies making progress are combining rapidly maturing BI technology with a vision of how information can be used to achieve business goals, a strong dialogue between the business and IT, and a culture for acting on insights gleaned. They're the ones to watch.

Cindi Howson is the founder of BIScorecard, a Web site for BI product reviews, and the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets To Making BI A Killer App.