Moving towards Pervasive Business Intelligence
December 14, 2010
Pervasive Business Intelligence, which is the ability to enable a company to see their data as an asset that can be exploited in real time, has been the aim of many vendors and consultants in the BI industry for some time. In an era where most types of product information is available online, competitive forces are driving BI consultants and vendors to provide ways to enable better service and lower prices in the struggle for corporate survival.
Discussion of Pervasive Business Intelligence
One of the main stumbling blocks that I have found in trying to enable pervasive BI when delivering a new BI application or tool to my corporate clients is the disparity between the requirements of the business and the assets set aside by the IT department to deal with those requirements. One of the main concerns that the majority of my clients raise with me in the discovery or planning phase of the project is that they do not want the BI solution to be deployed to anyone except business analysts and power users.
This point of view must be challenged as it does not assist the achievement of pervasive BI, which makes companies smarter, better and faster. To achieve this kind of value-add requires a proactive approach, but, without vision from the decision makers in the company these opportunities can be overlooked or are seen as optional and therefore are beyond the traditional approach. This is where as a BI specialist you must provide an answer in the form of tools that enable the staff of the company, from director to front line operations personnel, to access and interrogate their data without the need of a specialist - either BI or IT.
Allowing the user to interact with their data directly supports the natural iterative of analysis, which is to allow the user to follow where his or her questions lead. I have found during my years of delivering BI systems that allowing the user to react independently to the answers that they receive from the data, without needing to ask for assistance from an expert, prevents them from losing the momentum of the search. This leads to the BI user utilizing self-service BI to provide analysis of the data as they think of new methods of improving their market share and obtain the results that they require in real time, hence making proactive decisions easier and the ability to provide a smarter outcome. Matching the BI interface with your types of users is key to achieving pervasive BI. Most business users associate BI with analysts who can access the data via query tools and the raw OLAP database. The problem with this assumption is that to achieve pervasive BI, the data must be available to all users at all levels. Front line operational staffs do not have the time or the requirement to learn how to access the data using these sometimes complex tools and therefore benefit from embedded tools.
BI in the Real World
Recently, having created a BI tool to enable a major bank to access the data they held in survey results, I was asked if it was possible to enable the data to be accessed across a web interface. Having delivered a mixture of self-build dashboards and interactive reports, which had satisfied the original requirement, it was discovered that questions had been raised from the front line staff that could not be answered quickly enough using traditional methods. To enable this change of emphasis I delivered a front end to the user's desktop utilizing both thick client methodology via MS Access and also an ASP.Net client on thin clients within the branch. The main obstacle to the interface however was the requirement to allow users to state in plain language what they wanted to find in the information they were interrogating; this was partly achieved by utilizing the free text search facilities available within SQL server 2005. I have found that utilizing the Microsoft platform to deliver results provides the user with a system that supports ease of use for the non Business Analyst/Super User. There is also the advantage of user familiarity with Internet Explorer, Excel and SharePoint. The skill sets are already there, which helps support the non-technical business users as well as IT to get up to speed quickly.
Obtaining BI Results
Achieving a successful implementation of pervasive BI has more to do with how you manage the way you present your solution to the company. I have found that you must be able to drive a change of direction within the company's decision makers to support the idea that you can supply information that is relevant to every level of the business instead of reacting only to the question "What do you need". In extending the reach of BI to the rest of the companies employees and engaging the IT departments in all the decision making processes, you are allowing the decisions to be gleaned from the companies' data to be relevant to all branches of the company. The problem of the last 10 years has been that traditional BI tools are overly complex and difficult to use; many vendors have attempted to deliver all the answers to all questions by stacking new features on top of old systems, which leads to poor ease of use.
I have recently had the chance to implement some of the more recently launched web based BI interfaces by some of the major BI vendors, amongst them Cognos, Targit and Micro strategy. In many companies, Web-based BI has been the biggest driver behind expanding use within the corporate sector, however for it to provide the solution to the question of pervasive BI it will need to prove that it can become as robust as client-server interfaces. These new offerings are providing companies with the opportunities to extend their BI beyond corporate boundaries. I believe that there are signs that BI is becoming a must-have business tool that's no longer strictly optional and despite the best efforts of the major players to leverage Excel and PowerPoint as paths to pervasive BI, I believe that new tools must be created and implemented to allow all users within a company to access the available information.