Operationalizing Business Intelligence

Its focus on operationalizing insights distinguishes Information Builders from its competitors. It worked for performance management, says CEO Gerry Cohen, and it's poised to give IBI an advantage in statistics and predictive analytics.

Information Builders Inc.introduced WebFOCUS Performance Management Metrics (PMM) -- its first branded performance management (PM) tool -- almost two years ago. The tool was based on an existing offering, WebFOCUS Performance Management Framework (PMF), an all-in-one PM toolkit that Information Builders now positions as the centerpiece of its PM push.

Last month, IBI unveiled its revamped PMF version 5.2, an update that boasts improved support for custom dashboards and Web 2.0 gadgets, such as social media services (for example, Twitter). In addition, IBI officials claim, the revamped PMF 5.2 delivers better interoperability with third-party business performance management (BPM) applications or services.

IBI's take on PM, like its more recent positions on statistics, predictive analytics, and even BI search, is consistent with what CEO Gerry Cohen claims is its guiding focus: operationalizing insights.

At this point, Cohen and other IBI officials claim, PM has effectively been operationalized: the biggest PM players (IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., and SAP AG) are arguably the biggest BI vendors, too. Over the next half-decade, Cohen argues, other non-BI domains (such as statistics and predictive analytics) will likewise be operationalized. Put another way, they will be made safe for BI.

Cohen and other officials tout what they say is -- or was -- a distinctly IBI-esque take on PM: operational performance management, or OPM. Three years ago, for example, Cohen was promoting the virtues of OPM, an approach that -- in the context of PM's then-prevailing finance-centric orientation -- was unconventional.

Nowadays, Cohen argues, everyone seems to have operational religion. In the case of PM, he argues, this stems in part from the effective disappearance of best-of-breed providers. "Five years ago, if you wanted performance management [technology], who would you call? You forgot the names of the companies, didn't you? They all got acquired by other, bigger [non-PM] companies. Nowadays, they're all BI companies," said Cohen, who met last month with BI This Week for an impromptu interview at the company's mid-town Manhattan headquarters.

Cohen believes a similar thing is happening with other, traditionally non-BI domains such as statistics or predictive analytics. The lesson? In almost every case where a pure-play or discrete technology discipline is brought to bear in a BI context, it at some point gets subsumed as part of BI.

That's the operational move, according to Cohen. "In the old days, if I wanted predictive analytics, I'd go to an SAS or an SPSS or a special provider. [Customers] no longer want to do that. Why? Because it's increasingly a BI issue. They want [to get this technology] from BI companies."

Thanks to efforts like R -- a free and/or open source software (F/OSS) programming and modeling environment for statistical analysis -- BI vendors like IBI have been able to address this demand, Cohen concluded.

The trick -- with performance management, predictive analytics, search, and other technology domains -- is to harness or expose disruptive technologies in a usable (i.e., operational) context. That's precisely what he describes as IBI's core competency.

"[Our competitors are] talking about operational this, operational that," said Cohen, with a dismissive wave. He contrasted what he portrays as the rest of the industry's operational-come-lately approach with what he claims is Information Builders' "consistent" focus on operationalizing business intelligence -- be it in the context of performance management, predictive analytics, advanced analytics, or data integration.

"That has always been our message. It was our message with performance management, even when they [i.e., pure-play vendors] … had very different visions. It's true today, in what we offer for performance management [e.g., the revamped Performance Management Framework] or with products like R-Stat [IBI's GUI front-end for R] and search."

Pitch-Perfect PM

In addition to a guiding operational focus, IBI has a couple of additional PM advantages, argues Michael Corcoran, the company's chief marketing officer.

Thanks to the acquisition of several entrenched PM best-of-breed vendors -- chiefly, Cognos Inc. (which was acquired by IBM) and Hyperion Solutions Corp. (which was acquired by Oracle). Between them, Cognos and Hyperion had acquired at least half-a-dozen PM pure-plays -- Information Builders now competes on a comparatively level PM playing field, Corcoran contends.

"I think our existing customers were always very interested in what we could do with that [performance management]. They responded very positively to our Performance Management Framework, for example, and we have a lot of great examples of [PM solutions] they've built with it," said Corcoran, during our interview.

"Where we've really been surprised is with interest from outside our customer base. This has really been driven by consolidation. It's sort of counter-intuitive, because if you're an Oracle-only or an IBM-only or an SAP-only shop, all of this [consolidation] has been great for you." In such cases, Corcoran acknowledges, "it doesn't make sense" for customers to opt for third-party PM technology.

It's a well-trod approach among marketers: establish credibility by first acknowledging that an offering can't be all things to all people -- e.g. (as in this case) to single-stack IBM, Oracle, or SAP shops.

However, few shops are single-stack anything. At the same time, Cocoran stresses, has its iWay data integration and connectivity toolset. IBM, Oracle, and SAP have data integration, too, Corcoran concedes. "What they really offer is this kind of stack-specific data integration, which [in Oracle's case] maybe excels at getting data out of SAP and into Oracle, but which doesn't work as well if you want to go the other way.

"This is one reason we are just seeing phenomenal interest in iWay, particularly for things like data quality and master data management," he maintains. After trumpeting IBI's MDM and data quality bona-fides, he notes: "Sometimes, that [interest] results in [customers] coming to our performance management solutions, too."

IBM, Oracle, and SAP might (justly) take issue with Corcoran's characterization of their DI stacks. At the same time, IBI maintains reseller relationships with all three vendors. For a long time -- prior to its acquisition of Business Objects SA -- SAP even resold iWay technology as its preferred DI connectivity. (Business Objects likewise marketed SAP-oriented DI technology in its Data Integrator product, which devolved from the former Acta. Acta made its name by marketing SAP-specific ETL technology.)

IBI's vendor- or technology-neutral approach to DI -- to say nothing of the more than 300 native or optimized adapters it markets in iWay's DI line -- gives it a leg-up in the OPM market, Corcoran maintains.

"[This] is something no one else can touch. MDM is becoming more and more crucial -- last year, we saw just enormous interest in our MDM [offering] -- [and] we feel it's going to be even more of an advantage," he concludes.