So You're Buying Business Intelligence...

Ann All
Slide Show

Real Questions for BI Vendors

Click through to see the questions Ann discovered that can make a tangible difference in your diligence.


When I was tasked with providing content for a slideshow of questions to ask potential business intelligence vendors, I worried it might be too vague and general to really help anyone with their BI initiatives. After all, questions would be dictated by a company's overall BI strategy and its purposes for specific BI projects. At least a couple of my sources agreed with me.


Yet when I prodded them to go ahead and see what they could come up with, they produced some great questions, ones I'd want to ask any potential BI vendor before I got up from the table. Several of them offered clever suggestions on how to move past generic questions to more specific ones that should yield more accurate answers.


For instance, instead of asking "what kind of support can I expect from you?" Barney Finucane, an analyst at The BI Verdict, a vendor-independent BI product selection service, suggested companies should ask vendors if you can look at their technical and support Web sites. This will give you "a good idea of what they might be doing wrong" as well as what they do right, he told me.


In another angle on service, Forrester Research analyst Boris Evelson told me it's important to ask about a vendor's ability to help you with your overall BI strategies, not just implementing BI products. Why? "Any problems will likely involve integration, support, organizational structure and/or underlying business processes rather than technology. Only experienced consultants can help with those kinds of problems," he said. It's true that technology tunnel vision can derails BI initiatives -- and plenty of other technology projects as well.


Evelson also advised that I "discount questions that vendors and other analysts may provide like "do you have modern architecture," "do you use SOA," "can you enable end user self-service," and "is your BI app user friendly," because he feels these are commodities now. I thought the vendors I spoke to did a pretty admirable job of not just trying to pump up their own products, but several did mention ease of use. While I wish this was a commodity, I don't think it is yet.


And a solution that isn't easy to use will hurt a company's return on investment since they'll be paying for "shelfware" if folks don't use it. Consider an anecdote shared with me by John Kitchen, chief marketing officer for Datawatch Corp., about one of his company's clients, a Global 500 consumer goods company that bought 300 copies of a BI product and found after three months that just four licenses were being used.


Of course, some users will chafe at using BI tools regardless of whether they're easy to use and companies can improve usage rates by getting "super-users" to evangelize tools to their less tech-savvy colleagues, but I think companies can improve the odds that tools will get used if they make accessibility a criteria. So it's a good idea to ask "how much training will it take to get an 'average' non-technical person successfully using your software?" as Kitchen suggested.


I hope you'll click through to the slide show for the full list of 18 questions.


Because my sources werre so generous with their time and insights, I'd like to thank them all here (and shoot them a little link love). Some are mentioned by name in the slideshow, others are not -- but they all contributed valuable ideas. In no particular order:
Dyke Hensen, cheif marketing officer of PivotLink

Boris Evelson of Forrester Research, author of a fine blog on BI

Jake Freivald, VPP of marketing for Information Builders

Brian Gentile, CEO of Jaspersoft

John Kitchen, chief marketing officer of Datawatch (link in body of post)

Barney Finucane, analyst for The BI Verdict (link in body of post)

Seth Grimes, owner and principal consultant for Alta Plana

Wayne Eckerson, director of research for The Data Warehousing Institute (Check out his Wayne's World blog)

Mark Morton, product marketing for IBM/Cognos

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 6, 2010 11:24 AM Rob Chapman Rob Chapman  says:

Dear Ann,

It's great to see you asking the questions "How easy is it to do..." So often buyers ask "Can you do..." which leads to the default answer "Yes! With a little extra coding."

If a feature is technically possible but requires advanced training, then it's probably not going to be used and is probably not worth having for most users. Ease of use should be as prominent in the buying decision as number of features.

I also think "What is in your upcoming releases?" is a great question as now that so many people are looking for SaaS solutions that can be updated frequently and seamlessly, it is important to know where the product is going not just where it is.

Finally, I would add what in my mind is the key question "Can I see your product in action?" Live demonstrations using the buyers own data are enormously powerful ways to see not only how the product will work in practice, but what business value it can deliver.

Rob Chapman


Apr 12, 2010 5:33 PM Ann All Ann All  says: in response to Rob Chapman

Thanks, Rob! The demo question is an excellent addition to what I hoped would be a list of good, common-sense Qs for folks vetting a variety of BI solutions. Always good to have such a list, I think it's even more important now as we begin to see more 'non traditional' BI solutions.


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