Bringing Business Intelligence to the Masses

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Slow Growth?
All the hoopla surrounding business intelligence notwithstanding, some say that the technology needs to shift into a higher gear before more companies will climb aboard. Several software-industry gurus report that, while business intelligence is gaining firmer traction in the commercial marketplace, there is plenty of room for the market to grow at a faster pace. Fern B. Halper, senior consultant at Hurwitz & Associates, says that BI developers should focus on adding analytical depth and dynamic capabilities to their offerings to help do so.

Such business performance management tools—samples of which are already rolling down the pipeline at BI vendors like SAS, Cognos, and Business Objects—will better help companies create a systematic way of monitoring business activities against various targets and goals while displaying this data visually to workers. Calling it a "natural extension" of business intelligence, Halper reports that business performance management tools enhance the value of business intelligence campaigns by enabling firms to monitor the progress of BI initiatives and successfully track, follow through, and tweak strategies as needed.

Hurwitz also cites the importance of merging predictive modeling and dynamic response software into the business intelligence mix, which can offer companies even more sophisticated levels of data than they were getting before. Predictive capability tools like SAS's Enterprise Miner, Hurwitz reports, can help companies gain more value from their business intelligence initiatives by "pattern-izing" their data. Citing a company that notices a decline in sales from their sales reporting intelligence, Hurwitz says that the firm could use data mining software to target the customers who are leaving the fold and apply the reasons why to existing customers who might be considering such a move. The firm also advises companies to use BI tools, particularly data analysis applications, to do so on a daily, or even hourly basis, instead of once a week or once a month. A marketing promotion, for example, could be changed on the fly if real-time feedback indicates that the promotion isn't working or needs adjusting.

A Small Business Uptick
Analysts also agree that, to date, medium-sized companies have been the primary beneficiaries of business intelligence solutions. But that is changing—and fast. Ventana Research reports that smaller companies (firms with 1,000 employees or under) haven't had the resources on hand to leverage business intelligence systems, but the BI industry is changing to accommodate the needs of smaller businesses.

One BI developer, Databeacon, is developing a business intelligence solution that addresses the limited-resources challenge faced by smaller companies and provides them the benefits of BI tools. Ventana says that Databeacon is simplifying the process of accessing, analyzing, and disseminating information to employees at small businesses by easing system access and by embedding Web-based reporting and analysis through a configurable server that integrates with a small firm's Web server on a variety of operating platforms. In addition, the Databeacon BI server component connects to XML, JDBC, and ODBC sources and transforms them into analytic views that are easily published out to users.

Customers seem to like what they see. The Toledo-Lucas (Ohio) County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is adding Databeacon's Web reporting and data analysis capabilities to its criminal justice information system, which tracks a wide variety of criminal justice data for law enforcement agencies in northwest Ohio. "The system collects and stores massive amounts of data that is critical to day-to-day operations of the Toledo-Lucas county criminal justice system, as well as research into key social issues that affect our citizens," explains Mike Bredeweg, special projects manager at CJCC. "Now we have a simple, affordable tool that can turn our raw data into valuable insight which we can use to improve the way our system functions. Before, this was not a possibility."

A Rosy Future for BI?
Bredeweg seems to speak for a good many former early-adopters of BI technology…with good reason. There's no doubt that, in an information economy where good information is as much a commodity as widgets or washing machines, the business intelligence industry will grow by leaps and bounds in the next decade. Global competition, pressure on public companies from shareholders to do more with less, and the need to do whatever it takes to hang on to current customers will drive marketplace growth.

Augmented by compatible technologies like tacit intelligence, business performance management, and business process management tools, and elevated in priority by government external reporting rules that place a premium on sophisticated information than can be accessed, processed, and disseminated in real time, business intelligence shouldn't be considered a luxury in corporate IT circles any more. These days business intelligence is a necessity.

Sidebar: The Era of Business Process Management

One argument against the deployment of sophisticated software applications like business intelligence (BI) is that information technology has reached a point of critical mass where systems and applications have become so standardized that they are essentially commoditized. Therefore, they contribute little to the competitive advantage of an organization. On the other hand, some analysts say that the evolution of business process management (BPM) tools—systems that evaluate and optimize company business processes and ultimately develop and further the competitive advantage of companies that use them—render that argument obsolete.

The analyst firm Doculabs cites the return to "process thinking" in businesses today where technologies such as business intelligence (and other IT investments) are only worthwhile if they help an organization conduct its business more effectively. Adhering to the "do more with less," mantra, such companies are using BPM to hike productivity and leverage existing systems. Essentially, BPM sharpens the company-wide coordination and automation of routine tasks so employees can be more productive and focus on higher-value exceptions. BPM is also deployed to create an organizational structure for IT applications (like BI), which cross organizational boundaries and link disparate business applications. These processes, Doculabs reports, can unlock standard business rules from disconnected systems and provide a current, real-time, global view of the metrics and key performance indicators that allow managers to make better decisions.

Maybe that's why other analyst firms are calling 2004 "The year of business process management." Upside Research, Inc. reports that over the past two years, the BPM market has exploded, as organizations look for products to automate and manage their business processes. BPM products have evolved into more sophisticated offerings, with broader coverage and increased support for business developers and users. Upside Research sees increasing modularity (more flexibility in modeling, reporting, and business rules by BPM vendors), forward movement on standardization, and an up-tick in demand from corporate customers for increased reporting and monitoring capabilities.

Sidebar: BI Implementation Tips

• Start with executive support. 
• Evaluate current processes.
• Inventory and rationalize current information gathering systems.

Hurwitz & Associates
• Bring IT managers on board by emphasizing new BI technology and the need to harness such systems.

Ventana Research
• Seek BI vendors who can prove the breadth and integration of their platforms.

META Group •
• Seek vendors who present a clear vision of how to integrate its products.
• Review company-wide information needs and decision-making facilitation requirements from the bottom up.
• Designate a specialist to handle regulatory compliance/corporate governance issues.

Sidebar: BI Trends

Gartner Group
• Corporate governance regulations are changing the face of corporate information and reporting requirements.
• "Avalanches of data" are forcing companies to streamline business information gathering processes.
• "Gummed-up" information pipelines need to be cleaned out - and replaced with more sophisticated BI applications.

Ventana Research
• Business budgets are skewing more toward line-worker information needs and away from executive-level corporate spending projects.
• Increased BI spending can help cut costs in myriad departments.
• BI vendors are refocusing product lines on small businesses with limited budgets.

Hurwitz & Associates
• Businesses will respond well to BI applications that emphasize analytical depth and dynamic capabilities.

• Business process management (BPM) tools that emphasize "process thinking" are a key to BI success.

Upside Research
• BPM market has exploded, meeting demand for applications that automate business processes.

Companies Featured in this Article
XpertUniverse, Inc.
Informatica, Inc.

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