The "R" Word and BI

While Wall Street stormed, the BI industry quietly rolled along say industry pulse-takers. They say there will be effects, though, and that may make the industry leaner and more effective.

In the first moments after a car crash, you sit in the wreckage and ask, "Did I live through that?" After a financial crash, you wonder about your job.

Though it's still early in this global financial crisis, I asked people in the business intelligence industry what they'd been hearing and thinking about -- partly as a follow-up to my survey last January. At that time they reported all was well. This month, the good news is that the industry will get knocked around some, they said, but it'll live -- and many people in it might actually be better off.

DataSelf CEO Joni Girardi explains why organizations need BI more than ever before: "In times of crisis, you have to be smarter and know exactly where you're making money. How you cut determines how quickly you can get up to speed again. BI is a tool that can really help you adapt to new environment."

Those who're sensitive to "clues," as Mark Madsen of Third Nature might put it, reported signs of health -- that is, healthy new constraints that could be a welcome tonic.

Madsen sees "a slight slowing" in BI. It will compare well with other tech investments. "It's much easier to push off an ERP upgrade," he said. "BI is one of those things that people need more of, while payables or receivables works just fine today." Madsen also expects to see open source win favor. "[Open source providers] will face the same challenges as any others, but if they go under, the source code is still there and the community can soldier on."

Sid Adelman reports that none of his clients has cut back. "People all over are saying 'cutbacks,' but everybody's been watching their money for a long time. There's nothing new there," said the co-author of Data Strategy (2005, Addison-Wesley) and a longtime data warehousing consultant. Several of his clients, in fact, have recently jumped into marketing analysis. "They spend tons of money on marketing. They want to know was this campaign effective, do I do this again?" It requires tracking new customers and new behavior among existing customers.

Sven Jensen, vice president of business intelligence at Nike, sees tighter budgets on two tiers: "The large consulting firms of the world like Deloitte are hiring talent off the street," he said. "They're upscaling with a great talent pool." The smaller players might be left on the sidewalk. Small projects are being curtailed, he told me, because they're easier to cancel. Big ones just roll along. In any case, he sees no major new investment in BI through 2009.

Visualization expert Stephen Few and other consultants reported the same steady stream of prospective clients.

Two visual analysis vendors -- Corda and Tableau -- reported strong customer interest in making greater use of existing data warehouses. Tableau vice president Kevin Brown found that many attendees at the Teradata PARTNERS conference in Las Vegas are adjusting to newly tightened budgets. His product's low price for a proof of concept won new favor, he said, over more expensive products such as those from Cognos and MicroStrategy.

Attendees sounded interested in Teradata's recent new release, he said. Generally, attendees showed interest in new investments and in exploring new things. Overall, he felt that "things are OK."

Corda sales manager Greg Turman reported, "Business still looks good. I don't see tech getting bit yet." The company has just seen "a lot" of new inquiries from Asia, for example. Next year, the company expects to hire more sales reps.

What, bruises but no blood? The more interesting effects will be subtle. Several experts see changes in the way we manage BI.

Former TDWI education director Dave Wells expects companies to insist on doing more BI with less money. "Decision makers will ask for speedier responses from BI teams while they keep team sizes the same. It'll be uncomfortable, but it's healthy."

Doing more with less will make BI teams more focused and efficient. "The problem with BI today is that it has gone the way of all IT things: centralized, slow, expensive, and inefficient." Only good can come from greater agility, faster delivery, and adoption of tools that remove the need for anyone between a business person and the data can only be good.

A data architect at a leading tech vendor who asked for anonymity foresees a new crop of data-friendly executives. Traditionally, "business people have pushed away the IT stuff," he told me. "It's not fun for them. Why muddy the water when IT doesn't even support what we need? The IT guys get to play with toys and be smart and on top." Organizations keep measuring old, irrelevant stuff, he said, and data quality problems get swept under the rug. All that leads to "BI that's not believed." The new people, he believes, will be more analysis savvy.

Corda's Turman compares today's BI industry with one Manhattan hotdog vendor: The man set up shop during a recession and sales boomed. Soon someone told him, "Don't you know there's a recession?" He cut his hours and, sure enough, soon he was out of business. Turman complains, "If the … media would just shut up, we'd go through the recession without noticing."

Sliding through is fine for short-term survival, but the industry is much healthier than that. The lean outcome described by Dave Wells and others sounds like it might be worth the trouble.

About the Author

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