Thursday, August 21, 2008

Do You Do BI?

It's a hot topic today in the software industry: Business Intelligence (or just BI if you are in a hurry). At least, the leaders of companies such as IBM, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft think so. Over the last couple of years, these mega-vendors have gobbled up BI vendors like Cognos, Business Objects, and ProClarity in attempts to beat each other in a race to organize products into single "technology stacks."

Of course, you may wonder, "To do BI, must I really buy a complex mix of integrated/not-so-integrated products from a vendor the size of Finland?" After all, what exactly is intelligence in the business sense and why are there so many tools for it?

Paraphrasing my Encarta dictionary (which by the way Microsoft acquired from Funk & Wagnalls), business intelligence software is a highly-developed product that gives the user the ability to acquire information and then skillfully apply that to the business problem at hand. We have different BI products because we have such a variety of information, users, and business problems.

Most of your company's enterprise "data" is created and maintained by the transactional operational systems, but it is not kept in a way that makes it easily accessible as "information." To overcome this challenge, a whole subset of BI products exists just to deal with the storing, managing, and retrieving of huge amounts of detail data. There are database systems, file structures, extract-transform-load (ETL) products, data and metadata management applications, and other solutions to address the issues surrounding storing data and organizing it for informational purposes. Rather than try to use operational data, companies will copy and reformat it into data warehouses, repositories, data marts, multi-dimensional cubes, and other reporting structures.

To turn data into information for different users, computer systems must be able to present it based on each users' particular needs Many people just need detail content automatically delivered to them in e-mails or printed reports. In other words, they just want information "pushed" out with no effort on their part. Others, however, need the flexibility of on-demand access to information and be able to "pull" it whenever their job calls for it.

If my role within an organization involves handling day-to-day operations, then my needs might be met simply with an old-fashioned paper report with information presented to me in rows and columns. However, if I were an executive, I would not want to thumb through stacks of green-bar struggling to make sense of the data myself (nor would my shareholders). Instead, I would need to make fairly quick yet proper decisions based on highly summarized and simplified information shown in a visual format such as a trend graph or a scorecard.

To see a good example of this, Google the White House Executive Branch Management Scorecard. You will see just a few pages of red, yellow, and green dots with arrows showing whether things are getting better or worse for the government in particular categories. A quick glance at the first page, and the president can see that the financial performance of the Defense Department is poor and declining but that the Smithsonian is doing really well.

If I were an analyst, however, I would have to go beyond the color of the dots and answer the question of "why was this dot green last month and now is red?" To do that, I might need some type of interactive tool that allows me to "slice and dice" my way through the data until I discover the root cause of the problem. While some of this detective work might be visual, I may also need to switch to a more sophisticated statistical analysis tool.

Because of my role, I might have to answer a very specific question that has not been asked before and which may never be asked again. That might require me to become a "BI power user" and utilize some type of ad-hoc tool to generate a one-time report or online query. Hopefully, somebody else has already organized the underlying data in a way that makes this task easier.

Because of this variety of data, users, and business needs, it is obvious that a single BI product is not going to meet everybody's needs. Different tools have emerged over time to handle specific business problems and today's mega-vendors are now trying to consolidate these together under a single brand name.

Do you need an enterprise stack to do BI or can you just dump operational data into an Excel spreadsheet? (Can you run the free world using a page of colored dots?) The best answer from the best advisors in the world will always be, "It depends." It depends upon your organization's needs and goals. But the bottom-line is this: you must be both effective and efficient in this global economy and you therefore need the best tools to enable you to easily learn from huge amounts of information, make good decisions, and then act as quickly as possible.

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About Me

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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.