Pervasive BI: Still a Vision, Not Reality

BI tools guru Cindi Howson's annual assessment of the BI finds that ratings of success, enterprisewide use dip but business impact still strong.

Cindi Howson, a principal with, isn't like most other industry analysts. For one thing, Howson uses -- and thoroughly evaluates -- the business intelligence (BI) and performance management (PM) tools about which she writes. That's one reason her "BI Bake Offs" -- seminar-length comparisons of BI and PM tools -- are standing-room-only sessions at TDWI events. Her annual assessment of the BI toolscape for is always an interesting read.

This year's edition is no exception. Although Howson's report highlights a number of new (or otherwise thought-provoking) findings, she also flags at least one result that -- for more than a decade now -- has been mostly unchanged.

In spite of increasing buzz about pervasive BI or about generalizing BI insights -- that BI makes the difference in an increasing number of decisions -- BI penetration still lags. Industry professionals seem no closer to licking the long-standing user-adoption problem. If anything, and in spite of the best-laid go-to-market efforts of the big BI suite players, user adoption has actually regressed.

In fact, "'Pervasive BI' continues to be more a vision rather than a reality," writes Howson. "BI adoption hasn't budged since we first began assessing this point in 2005." In fact, she concedes, "the percentage of employees using BI in 2007 was 25 percent and was 24 percent in 2009," so adoption actually slipped by a point.

Just as important, fewer companies identify their BI strategies as "successful." By successful, Howson and mean that the use of BI tools is perceived as instrumental in decision scenarios. The upshot is that far fewer companies reported successful BI experiences last year.

For example, in 2007, 24 percent of companies rated their BI experiences as "very successful," as against just 21 percent in 2009. The two-year difference between those assessing their BI experiences as "moderately successful" was even more striking: 68 percent of adoptees did as much in 2007; just 47 percent did so in 2009.

There are a few possible explanations, however. First, Howson and added a new multiple choice option -- namely, "slightly successful" -- which almost certainly accounts for the big disparity between the "moderately successful" tally in 2007 and 2009.

Second, 2009 was probably the most challenging year to date for most companies, involving both frozen (or slashed) IT budgets and an emphasis on doing more with less. To the extent that BI is perceived as just such a doing-more-with-less proposition, companies may have been disappointed when it came time to assess BI-derived outcomes.

"While there is a strong correlation between BI success rates and BI's contribution to business performance, it is not exact," she writes, noting that although one in five respondents assessed their BI deployments as "very successful," one in four believed that their BI investments had resulted in significant contributions to business performance.

"That the [business] impact is slightly higher than the success rate may be that some respondents associate success rates with technical and organizational challenges not yet overcome." For example, she continues, even though a BI project isn't yet fully (or ideally) realized -- e.g., it still has persistent data quality problems -- a business is able to derive value from using it.

Also interesting is what might otherwise be perceived as a BI reality check: optimism about BI's potential business impact was flat, overall, compared to 2007 and 2008. Although this evaluation could be attributed to growing practical, real-world experience among users or organizations with BI tools, Howson and aren't willing to let BI totally off the hook. She maintains that regardless of irrational or unreasonable customer expectations, BI does have a lot of as-yet-untapped potential.

"We believe the [business] potential [of BI] to be much higher," she says, noting that "While people's assessment of overall BI adoption remains flat, the assessment by particular user categories has increased substantially."

Bright spots, Howson points out, are most pronounced among traditional power users -- i.e., business and financial analysts -- where optimism about BI's business impact jumped by 10 percent from 2007. Similarly, adoption among managers jumped by 7 percent -- almost half are now BI users and consumers.

Usage among executives remained unchanged -- at slightly less than half -- but adoption among "inside staff" exploded, surging from 28 percent to 42 percent, a 50 percent increase.

Similarly, organizations appear to have had some success in pushing BI-like capabilities downward and outward across their organizations. In addition to the "inside staff" category, usage among "field staff" surged by 10 percentage points between 2007 and 2009 -- now one-third of potential users consume BI insights. "Customer" use rose by a similarly impressive 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2009 -- nearly one-fifth of customers now consume BI insights.

On the whole -- and in the context of last year's particularly challenging business climate -- Howson and are upbeat about BI's performance. They're also as convinced as ever that non-traditional user constituencies will benefit by being exposed to BI tools or BI-driven results.

"Some argue that certain users will never need BI. While this may be partly true, a bigger challenge is that BI is rarely considered, asked for, or made relevant beyond information workers." In this regard, she cites increased adoption rates among front-line workers (some inside staff, field staff, customers, and even suppliers) as a particularly encouraging development.

"For companies who still primarily view BI as a power user tool, instead, picture all employees having access to information to support their daily decisions and actions, with tools that work in ways they need them to," she writes.

"For some users, that's a business query tool, for others, it's a spreadsheet, and for others, it's a widget of information, perhaps displayed on a BlackBerry or iPhone," Howson concludes. "When BI is made relevant and accessible to front-line and field workers as well as externally to customers and suppliers, then BI usage will reach beyond 100 percent of employees."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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