Some Advice on Visual BI


Companies are increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional business intelligence routine of pulling content from transactional systems like CRM or ERP, moving it to data warehouses and then generating reports -- finding it unwieldy and not all that helpful in making effective decisions.


They want to move BI closer to their relevant business processes and make it easier to use so more folks can take advantage of it. As I blogged last month, experts like Gartner say one way for companies to do this is to introduce more visual tools like dashboards and make them a user-friendly front-end to BI applications.


In addition to getting information in front of users more quickly, visual tools can help filter information so "the real kernels of knowledge pop out on the screen," said Mark Throssell, co-founder and CEO of The Ministry of Ideas in our interview last week. Thanks to the rapidly growing amounts of data that most companies are collecting, this ability is more important now than ever before.


Unlike more traditional BI tools, which typically are used by small groups of managers within an organization, visual tools are more accessible to all, says Throssell:

... Visualized tools can be used across a wide spectrum of employees -- both internally and in the field -- and across a wide swath of applications. The ideas is provide the visualization tools that can be used to complete the final 100 meters of the knowledge marathon.

Visualization is not a panacea, however, says Throssell. He offers three pieces of advice for companies considering the use of visual tools:

  1. Make sure the company is committed to the idea of visual BI, lest it become "a bridge too far after a long, expensive and often exhausting process of BI implementation."
  2. Look for a partner with proven experience, preferably a vendor with insight into sales and marketing processes and the role visual BI can play in simplifying them.
  3. Don't worry too much about compatibility between BI systems and visual tools as it "is no longer a serious issue."

Throssell downplayed the idea of unchecked proliferation of such tools throughout a company, a concern mentioned by a Gartner analyst in a recent Computerworld story. He says:

To be honest, a visualization front-end is only as good as the information fed into it from the back-end and through other information channels. So, if some visualization does creep into the enterprise under the radar of IT, then it will be mostly GUI stuff and not real visualized BI. In order for visualized BI, or any BI for that matter, to be useful it has to tap into the key resources of the enterprise. When everything is in sync, it is information at the speed of sight.

Without a clear sense of purpose for visualization and a commitment to align data with business goals, Throssell says that companies risk suffering the same kinds of BI problems caused by overly complicated spreadhsheets.

These can render the base data meaningless no matter how pretty it looks! If this is part of the role of IT in this process, then clearly they need to be involved.