Analysis: Mainstream Apps Adopt BI Features

BI shows signs of spreading to mainstream business applications. Case in point: QuickBooks Enterprise 8.0 has it built in.

If I didn't know Intuit better, I'd say that "business intelligence" in the new QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions 8.0 is just a marketing gimmick. What's interesting is that Intuit says its new BI features are just what their customers want. Clearly, BI is spreading.

"Our users get and immediately understand the idea. There's no baggage," said Intuit senior product manager Richard Tripp. "It resonates."

Since the days of Quicken, which balanced the family checkbook, Intuit has cultivated what it calls the "Voice of the Customer," a sensitive listening post for customer needs. Tripp said business user requests came down to three areas: they wanted to integrate different types of data, to structure data the way they wanted to see it, and to use custom calculations.

As he told me, "We asked them, 'Why do you keep asking for these tools? What are you trying to figure out?"

Tripp and his team realized ultimately that these business people simply wanted insight. The questions sound like a list from a brochure from up-market BI tools: How profitable am I? Who're the most profitable and least profitable customers? You can fill in the rest from memory.

"It's a fascinating discovery," he said.

In fact, Intuit doesn't shy away from using the term BI. On its "What's New" page (, the company notes under the category "Profitability, COGS, & Sales Dashboards from Business Intelligence" that the new product offers "the tools to quickly assess your business performance with Intuit's new Web-based Business Intelligence application, powered by Business Objects." Now when's the last time you saw "dashboards" promoted in a mainstream enterprise business application?

It continues, "You can view trends and accurately analyze sales, expenses, and profitability data to monitor business progress and gain insight into future performance. Plus, save time and make faster decisions with reports accessible any time, any place." Sure sounds like a BI application to me, and QuickBooks Enterprise's performance dashboard uses the graphical interface many BI practitioners will recognize.

I took Tripp at his word -- that it was, indeed, a "fascinating discovery," but it made me wonder -- can BI go further? I offered Tripp my own idea for spreading BI even further, which he called "brilliant."

I run a one-person office, and I want a tool that tracks more than money. It also tracks time -- without making me tell it when one thing starts and another ends. That would be like punching a time clock.

Wise use of time is my best key performance indicator. Time leads and money follows. Trouble is, I'm a lousy judge of my own performance -- especially when I switch fast among several different projects, sometimes with a minute here to answer an e-mail, five minutes there to answer a phone call, then back to what I'd been doing before.

I found out just how bad things were during a five-month period years ago, when all I had to do was edit a book. Meetings with the author (a chiropractor) occurred only every month or so. Still, daily performance was critical. To help keep establish a framework, I set up a timekeeper in FileMaker Pro.

Frankly, I hated the job. I spent days straightening out the author's convoluted phrases and strangely capitalized nouns. When my semi-automatic timekeeper stitched a day's little bits of time together, I saw that what felt like six hours were actually about two.

What I really wanted was software that just knew what I was up to at any moment and stopped and started timers accordingly. It would sense when I started working, it would know when I slacked off and started surfing the Web, and it would know when I stopped for good.

It would be integrated with the phone to count calls and may, as set in preferences, ask what a call was all about. A pop-up window might ask, "Pardon me, did you just talk to a new client?" It could say, "Based on the call's length, it appears to have been a sales call. Was it?" Or, "You were just talking to your girlfriend, weren't you?" It might require training, such as the kind some spam filters need.

At the end of the day, week, and month, I can see how well I did. The analysis would start with answers to simple questions: How many productive calls did I make? How much actual writing and editing did I do? It would go further, though, with rich, interactive visual analysis that showed trends and correlations and answered my "what-if" questions.

"It would make sense for BI to come to the personal level," said Joni Girardi, CEO of DataSelf, a BI provider to mid-size businesses.

He imagines how such personal performance software would help decision makers correlate certain contacts and activities with outcomes. "You could say that certain interactions give you more pleasure and certain interactions give you more money." He said. "You could plan your day better."

Still, is it BI? Where are the data marts? The data governance? The meetings?

Longtime BI developer Sam Hammond, in Oakland, CA, thinks it is BI. "I don't necessarily consider a database or an interface to be business intelligence," he said. "Business intelligence isn't tools, it's a philosophy."

Time for a break -- before breaks start getting counted.

About the Author

Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP, is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco area. He can be reached at

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