Analysis: Can We Ever Reach BI's Limits?

BI initiatives can stall for a variety of reasons on their way to full potential -- but is there a limit to what they can do?

Some press releases provoke more questions than their sponsors intend. The most recent example promised a new line of services that let customers "finally realize the full potential of [their] BI investments."

Full potential? How would anyone know what that is or when they've reached it? How would they know if the wall they just hit is from insufficient BI horsepower? Perhaps BI has just given them all it can.

I asked the man behind the press release. Sven Jensen, vice president of BI at Sapient, a Cambridge, Mass. consulting group, suggested several tests. First, ask whether the BI initiative has helped the business do better whatever it does, whether BI has improved efficiency, and whether it has improved things like governance and compliance.

That's solid advice, of course, but where's the outer wall on this box? There is none, say all the experts I asked.

"We haven't seen that there's an endpoint to BI, yet," said Wayne Eckerson, director of TDWI Research. "BI is in a continuous state of adaptation to the business." As long as there's insight to be had, better plans to be written, processes to be smoothed out, and decisions to be made, BI will have a place. That may be an awkward place, in many cases. Most BI programs are still like teenagers, said Eckerson. They're still clumsy and still haven't figured out a few basics. As they grow they hit walls, most of which are predictable. Sooner or later, they grow up.

"Most organizations get hung up in the 'gulf' because of the triple whammy of project scope, data quality, and legacy reporting system," Eckerson said -- referring to the first of two major crises in his BI Maturity Model -- "while the 'chasm' trips up BI teams because of architectural and organizational rigidity and report chaos."

One wall in particular has the attention of Philip Russom, senior manager of TDWI Research. When it comes to reporting and analysis, stumbling BI can be traced to insufficient investment.

At the low end, organizations scrimp on BI, Russom said, hoping to get by on a reporting tool and a bucket of reports. "Since the investment is paltry and the scope is miniscule, the organization soon wrings out as much of it as possible."

Loosening the purse strings can lead to ever better reporting. Companies could try self-service BI, more concurrent users with larger servers, new data sources, and even better-designed interfaces to encourage users to actually use reports.

Having wrung the last drop from reporting, there are many more layers: OLAP-based analysis, predictive analytics, advanced visualization, portals, and so on.

Even the most sophisticated systems reach a small portion of enterprise data. Those systems also reach a small portion of those who could make use of it all. "There is plenty of room to grow," said Russom. "Anyone claiming to hit the wall just isn't trying hard enough."

Sometimes the potential for improvement is on the human side, which former TDWI education director Dave Wells has been thinking about.

"If the barrier is lack of willingness to use BI, trust in data, etc, it's more of a people problem than technology," he said. "Attention to BI culture is probably the right response."

Every organization has a BI culture, he said in his keynote at TDWI World Conference in Chicago. "Culture is about what we think, what we say, and what we do," he said. "It's beliefs and expectations, communications, and behavior."

Unhealthy cultures have hostility and suspicion, uncertain and anecdotal effectiveness, dubious commitment and assumed values. Healthy cultures have things like trust among co-workers, proactive alignment, clear accountability, defined values and declared commitment.

BI initiatives typically straddle two sub-cultures: IT and business.

Sapient's method may do the trick. Jensen said. "We see a lot of this 'just hand me over the data and nobody gets hurt' kind of BI." Under Fusion, all parties in a BI initiative -- often along with C-level sponsors -- troop off for a long weekend of thinking, discussing and planning. Out of that comes alignment and agreement.

Jensen says BI "sheds light in the darkest corners of your business." If you're going to feel around in the dark, you're better off with people you trust. It makes finding the door in your wall easier.

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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