Q&A: Pushing BI Beyond Business Managers

Operational business personnel are the next wave of BI users. What will it take to extend BI to these users?

Most companies have a wealth of information buried in data collected over the years by ERP and CRM systems, but don't know the best way access it. Typical BI tools are designed for back-office business analysts and are starting to be deployed to top management as tools such as dashboards. In this interview, Michael Corcoran of Information Builders talks about the next wave of BI users -- operational business users -- and what that large influx of users can bring to companies.

"Information can have a dramatic, positive behavioral effect when it is directly available," Corcoran says, which explains why making business intelligence available to a far wider swath of workers can directly impact return on investment.

Corcoran is vice president of corporate strategy and chief marketing officer for Information Builders. He has more than 20 years of experience in the software industry and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and other events.

BI This Week: What problems do you see with where BI is used in today's enterprise?

Michael Corcoran: Business intelligence has historically been deployed in the back office, where highly skilled analysts and power users have been the few benefactors of our investments in data. They use complex tools for performing ad hoc query and advanced analytics. The result has been expensive data warehouse projects with lower than expected return on investment (ROI).

As organizations began to deploy ERP and CRM systems (and thus collect more data), they have come to realize that there is a greater need to recoup value from these investments. The more recent focus for BI deployment has been management, where the emphasis has been on deploying dashboards and performance metrics. In most organizations today, we estimate that less than 20 percent of data is accessible, and business intelligence has been deployed to fewer than 20 percent of potential users.

Given those numbers, who do you see as the next audience beyond management?

The next audience is operational employees. Although management represents the most visible set of BI users, operational employees offer the greatest ROI potential.

In our experience at Information Builders, organizations perform optimally when each individual has the necessary information and metrics related to their own performance and their directly related processes. Information can have a dramatic, positive behavioral effect when it is directly available. In the operational areas, BI can be applied directly to business processes to identify and reduce costs, errors, and redundancy. The highest ROI potential comes from the least-served audience: the business partners and customer outside the firewall. Many BI products do not provide the scalability, simplicity, or pricing models to support these very strategic deployments.

When you talk about extending BI, what's different in what management wants versus what other types of users want?

When it comes to BI, one size does not fit all. Too many BI products are limited to ad hoc tools for power users and dashboards for managers. Operational business users represent 80 percent of the under-served population. As their comfort level with technology continues to grow, so does their demand for information. If you can make BI as simple to use as a search engine or buying a book online, they will use it. On the other hand, if you give them power user tools, they become expensive "shelfware."

Currently, these users are often relegated to using static, latent reports, driving up their frustration. You have to deliver the ability to create information on demand but with some level of built-in context and familiarity. Operational employees, partners, and customers often want specific real-time, or near real-time, information as opposed to historical perspective. Their BI applications will need to incorporate operational data, or the data warehouse will need to provide near-real-time support.

For example, customer service reps should see every interaction with the customer they are speaking to within minutes of the latest transaction. This works best in the form of custom BI applications. If you deliver electronics reports and statements to disconnected users, you should also seek higher levels of interactivity than what is typically provided in HTML, standard Adobe PDF, or Microsoft PowerPoint files. The goal is no longer simply to make the masses better informed but to make each individual more analytical.

That's an interesting goal, but how do you take something as complex as a predictive model and make it deployable and easy to use for the end user? How do you make users more analytical?

These users can no longer be left without information, and they shouldn't be left to their own devices to develop and manipulate information in spreadsheets. Data visualization technologies not only help analysts understand trends but let non-technical business users find answers. When integrated with reporting, they provide a way for users to graphically select their filters or screening criteria.

Traditional BI assumes you know where your data is, you understand how it is structured, and you have some idea of what you are looking for. On the other hand, data visualization and search technologies are making it easier for business people to comfortably find information in the most difficult of data environments.

Predictive models are a very sophisticated analytic technology that is also becoming more valuable through deployment. By embedding predictive models within reports, real-time business processes and BI applications, more business users are realizing the direct value of the results of the models.

Open source technologies for search and for predictive analytics are making deployment of these powerful technologies affordable for the masses. In essence, we have seen BI extend from historical perspective reporting and analysis to real-time and even predictive decision making.

What about using mobile technology to deliver tools and information to these users?

Mobile technology will become increasingly important. Consumers love their gadgets and will drive demand for mobile applications in the workplace. The browser technologies on these devices are maturing to support rich Internet applications and highly interactive experiences. Organizations are struggling in some cases on device standardization. The perfect mobile device sits somewhere between an iPhone, a Blackberry, and a Windows Mobile device but functions like a robust PC.

The next few years should be interesting. The immediate question for mobile deployments this year is the economy. Is mobile deployment a "need-to-have" or "nice-to-have" technology? It depends on the business value of the application.

What does Information Builders bring to the table in this discussion, both on the back end and the front end?

At Information Builders, we believe everyone makes decisions. We also believe strongly in the essential relationship between integration software and business intelligence software. Our iWay integration software offers access to 300 data sources and provides ETL, real-time data warehousing, federated data access, business activity monitoring, complex event processing, and third-party data integration services.

Leveraging this robust integration, our WebFOCUS business intelligence platform provides the widest support for all BI users and applications. We deliver ad hoc reporting, dashboards, multi-dimensional analysis, predictive analytics, data visualization search, mobile BI, publishing and distribution, and custom applications from one integrated platform. We back these technologies with 34 years of experience and the best trained experts in the industry.