Is 'Business' Intelligence Really About the Business?

Ann All

For going on five years now, Forrester Research CEO George Colony has been calling for a name change for the IT function, from information technology to business technology. Colony contends this change would signal IT's intent to focus on business goals. Here's an excerpt from a 2009 interview Colony did with Forrester colleague Connie Moore:

... I believe by changing the name to BT, and changing its behavior to focus on the business of the business, the technology organization would transform its relationship with the business. I think it would begin to communicate in a different language (the language of business), the current lack of communication would dissipate, and we'd have a higher level of communication around the business problems and the business issues. Which, of course, the presidents and line execs think and care about every day, but all too often, the technologists don't.

When I wrote about it, I said the most important part of Colony's statement was the reference to IT not only changing its name but "changing its behavior to focus on the business of the business." That's obviously the key. I'd like to think that's what most IT departments are already doing. But are they? (Frankly, I can be pretty naive.)


Colony's quote came to mind as I read an interesting eBizQ interview with Roman Stanek, CEO and founder of GoodData, a provider of cloud-based business intelligence software. Check out the first sentence of Stanek's answer to ebizQ Managing Editor Peter Schooff's question about why BI has a bad reputation among business users:

I believe that it's because BI, even though it has "business" in its name it is actually fundamentally an IT initiative and I don't think that IT departments know how to solve business problems. IT departments are very good at solving IT problems. So BI shouldn't be about how big is my data warehouse and how much data did I collect and how big a version did I build because those lead to very brittle and not really widely used solutions. We usually say that enterprise data warehouse is the place where data goes to die and that's why BI has such a bad name because it's driven by IT, it's tethered to IT and its not readily being used by business users. ...

Stanek says the cloud can help put BI's focus back onto the business, where it belongs. This has been true for at least some companies. In November I wrote about nutrition company Shaklee's positive experiences with BI in the cloud. The company's CIO said he "knows I've got a winner" because users in multiple functional areas use multiple BI applications -- without being forced to do so. I think that's great. Really. But, as I warned a few weeks later, I hope companies don't think that <strong>putting BI the cloud will somehow automatically solve underlying business issues</strong>.


And not all cloud-based BI solutions are the same. Any companies considering BI in the cloud should first refer to a list of criteria suggested by Forrester Research analyst Boris Evelson that I pointed to in this post from December.


The cloud isn't the only way to make BI more palatable. Microsoft's PowerPivot technology promises to add new BI capabilities to Excel and SharePoint, two tools already popular with business users. Nigel Pendse, an analyst who writes for The BI Verdict, last October called PowerPivot (then known as Gemini) "an ingenious Trojan horse for analysis services." He wrote:

The seductively inviting Gemini world is refreshingly free of the off-putting jargon like star/snowflake schemas, fact tables, cubes, measures, dimensions, hierarchies, levels, attributes, aggregations, partitions, MDX calculations and scripts typically encountered in OLAP server deployments. Instead, Excel power users with Gemini installed will be able to analyze and summarize vast amounts of data with absolutely no need to pre-define models or structures. In true spreadsheet-style, they work with the available data, rather than having to first build structures to slot it into. Microsoft is betting that this concession to the natural style of the millions of Excel power users will finally deliver the "BI for the masses" that has so far proved so disappointingly elusive.

Microsoft and IBM are among vendors promoting the idea of using data mashups to make it simpler for business users to produce their own BI reports by solving some of BI's niggly data-integration issues in ways invisible to end users. (As Pendse points out.) Bringing it back around to the cloud, mashups can be used to help integrate on-premise data with data from software-as-a-service applications.


But just how comfortable are "average" business users with doing their own data analysis, even using tools like mashups? It's a good question, one I wrote about in December. The answer will likely vary from company to company. But many business users will likely need a crash course in general concepts of relational databases and some knowledge of analytical software/reporting tools.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Feb 22, 2010 5:25 PM Stray__Cat Stray__Cat  says:

It's rather clear to most of the people involved that BI is not an IT project. The few failed projects I saw, almost invariably were treated as IT projects.

A BI project is a Business Project with a strong tech side. That's all.

my 2 cents

Feb 22, 2010 8:36 PM Jake Freivald Jake Freivald  says:

I agree with Stray__Cat that BI projects work when they're business projects with a strong technology aspect. For that matter, that's true of any business application -- ERP, CRM, SFA, etc. But note that ERP, CRM, and SFA projects are all applications. They expect non-technical users to put in and get out information about parts, or clients, or sales.

BI, unfortunately, is often implemented as a set of tools that some technically savvy wizards use to find the One True Answer when the Big Boss calls. Those aren't apps, and they're the toughest kinds of deployments to justify.

I think that implementing BI as a widely deployed application makes it more likely to be focused on business issues. Determine requirements for what users need; emphasize simplicity for non-technical users in user experience design (e.g., avoid drag-and-drop, use radio buttons and drop-down boxes instead); interact with Microsoft Office; use real-time data instead of latent data; design it with rapid adaptation in mind.

Then you can get hundreds of thousands of business people using BI instead of half-a-dozen analysts. That generates more success and hopefully some sort of measurable ROI.

Add me and stray cat and you get four cents. Anyone want to up the ante?

Feb 24, 2010 1:49 PM Mashup Guy Mashup Guy  says:

Data Mashups will become increasingly popular as businesses continue to integrate disparate data sources over the next five years.  

Feb 26, 2010 2:15 PM Radhika Subramanian Radhika Subramanian  says:

Call it mashup!  The core need is to enable businesses to quickly stream their data through analytics and see results that are insightful and actionable.



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