For some time now there's been a lot of buzz about companies getting business intelligence into the hands of more users, with the aim of getting the right information to the right people at the right time (or words to that effect). The conventional wisdom: Companies are limiting the potential usefulness of BI by making it available only to specialists, who create reports from centralized data and make those reports available only to select decision makers.
Not everyone agrees with this, of course. In 2009 I interviewed Nigel Pendse, a principal with OLAP Solutions who had just authored that year's version of the BI Survey, a report produced by the Business Application Research Center. He told me vendors were pushing the idea of so-called pervasive BI simply to sell more software licenses. While many folks require access to operational information, few of them actually need to perform analysis on it, he said:
A BI tool is for somebody who makes decisions with some latitude. If your decision-making is completely constrained, you don't need a BI tool. I just went on a trip. I certainly wouldn't want pilots getting their information about fuel from a BI tool! The plane has operational systems to show them what's happening. I don't want them sitting there doing analyses about optimizing fuel usage. Somebody at the head office may do that, but the guys flying the plane don't need to worry about it. Or even at the airport. There might be thousands of people working there, but I can only think of maybe a hundred who could conceivably get any value out of a BI tool.
Yet several companies featured in a recent Computerworld article are seeing tangible results from getting more users involved with BI. At 1-800-Flowers.com, users with access to real-time sales data created a quicker checkout process for fast-selling items, which the article says likely reduced costs and increased customer satisfaction. Bobby Nix, director of BI and analytics at consumer services company Allconnect, credits a 26 percent sales increase in 2011's first quarter to newfound staff expertise with BI, saying it helped sales associates focus on the best sales opportunities. And the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden saw a 30.7 percent per-capita increase in food and beverage sales from October 2010 through the first quarter of 2011 that the director of park operations attributes to BI.
The key to making this work, say the sources interviewed in the article, is creating a culture that values BI. Like so many bits of good advice, this sounds simple but can be maddeningly tough to execute. Many pieces on BI make the case that business users, rather than IT, should lead the initiative. On the face of it, this makes sense. At many organizations, IT still assumes sole responsibility for BI. Not surprisingly, this often results in solutions not well suited to business needs.
If IT wants to stop enabling data silos, it's time to stop talking about data and master data and "product data" and so on. Instead, talk about information (isn't that what the "I" in IT stands for anyway?). Talk about "intelligence." (Who doesn't want to be James Bond and collect "intelligence"?) Use real words that are more holistic than the oh-so-techie terms IT tends to use.
Encouraging business users to think in broad, big-picture strokes won't be enough. IT must walk the walk by adopting a similarly holistic approach to data integration, she wrote:
... Once, data integration was enough - but now, it's not. Business users don't just need you to integrate the data from one set with another set. They need information integration - they need to know, for instance, that you've not just combined databases, but you've resolved the semantic differences so "apple" means "apple" and not "pear." ... Data management is already on the right road with the trend toward "enterprise information management" and an information-oriented architecture. Semantics and meta-data management will be key. Embrace those trends.
In the Computerworld article, IDC analyst Dan Vesset advises using the appropriate tools to make different types of decisions. Rules-based, automated systems offer the most efficient way to make tactical decisions. Corporate decisions usually require conferring with colleagues, which is facilitated by using tools with collaborative elements.
Some other good tips from the article: