Pervasive Analytics: Are You Being Served?

Users are yearning for more analytic responsibility

Michael Corcoran, a senior vice-president with business intelligence (BI) mainstay Information Builders Inc. (IBI), makes a provocative claim: users are champing at the bit for more analytic responsibility.

In many cases, he argues, they're willingly interacting in analytic paradigms, via blogging, tweeting, participation in online forums, and other collaborative activities. True, Corcoran concedes that blogging -- to say nothing of tweeting -- isn't exactly an analytic activity. It nonetheless provides a context in which to test claims, gain insights, and make decisions.

"You have to realize that the average person is using technology and information at home more than they ever have. [Twenty] years ago, people learned about information technology at work and then started bringing it home," he argues. "Today, people are learning at home and bringing information technology into work. People are becoming more analytical over time. If something interests [them], they're going to go out on the Internet and see what's available. They're going to look at comparatives: reviews, blog entries, forums, other things. Now more than ever before, they have the ability to make informed decisions."

Users are starting to demand similar analytic resources -- or, more to the point, a similar analytic experience -- in their workaday jobs, Corcoran continues.

Smart companies will position themselves to meet this demand. "A forward-thinking organization is going to be one that's going to empower a greater level of decision-making at lower levels," he says. "You can't assume that [Joe and Jane C. Knowledgeworker are] ever going to replace your [Ph.D.s] in the [back office], but you're going to get a lot more power out of having, say, 20 or 30 smarter people out there making more, better [informed] decisions than you would by just having that one [Ph.D.] genius alone [in the back office]."

There's a learning curve, Corcoran stresses, and many shops are still feeling their way. "On the whole, you're going to benefit. Yes, you're bound to make mistakes, but you'll reduce your bottlenecks, you'll reduce the bureaucracy in your business, you'll become much more responsive and you'll encourage more responsibility [among knowledge workers]. Isn't that what agility is all about?"

Agility was a theme -- perhaps the theme -- at last month's TDWI World Conference in San Diego. Corcoran, like other vendor representatives, was on hand to serve up IBI's take on agile business intelligence (BI).

The word "agile" probably doesn't immediately call to mind a BI stalwart such as Information Builders, but Corcoran makes a thought-provoking case for consonance. He uses the fast-changing retail vertical as an example.

"What we're seeing in our own customer base is that people have moved from the traditional cycle of resale. You used to put out your fashion items and at the end of the season you'd say, 'Gee, how did these sell this year? Okay, the red ones did really well at this particular store, so we'll have to stock more red ones next season.' Today, what you say is, 'The red ones sold really well this week, we'll have to order more and get them into stores as quickly as possible.'"

Corcoran likewise outlines a scenario in which in-the-trenches decision makers can help boost revenues. "I think what's a really interesting trend is we're starting to see retailers sharing information across different stores. When you push these real-time business intelligence capabilities down to more and more users, you have a situation in which a manager in one department can see [for example] that maybe the same department in another store is selling lots of red gloves. So he calls them and asks, 'Why are you selling more of these gloves?' Maybe it's because [the manager in the other store] is displaying them with certain hats and these coats, so he can change his own display [accordingly]."

Even half a decade ago, this scenario was more the exception than the rule. Nowadays, Corcoran contends, it's a commonplace.

There's another wrinkle here, too. After all, if an employee can visualize how her department ranks against other departments in the same store -- as well as against the same department in other stores, you have a powerful performance management tool. "Ranking is the most powerful way to change behavior for people, because everyone wants to be the best or as good as the best, and nobody wants to be at the bottom," he argues.

"Behavior drives changes. Changing behavior will drive performance changes. People are motivated or demotivated by what they see. I'd rather see how [well or poorly] I'm doing before my boss sees it, because if I'm not doing well, trust me, I'm going to make the necessary changes," Corcoran continues.

"Having that ability to see how I rank [relative to my peers] is going to be a very positively motivating thing. Everybody's going to try to be a top performer -- if they know that the data is available. The problem is, nobody knows just what I'm doing. Nobody knows I'm slacking off -- because they don't see it visualized in a dashboard. Once you show them, 'Here's where you rank,' and they see that information for the first time, they're either going to leave or they're going to come to work with a whole new attitude, and that's really the crux of all of this."

This "crux," according to Corcoran and IBI, is precisely about pushing analytic-driven decision-making out to as many (often non-traditional) users as possible.

"It's not about making the tools more sophisticated for the [back office]. It's not even about equipping management with more dashboards. It's about getting this down to the individual. That's going to drive the most impact," he concludes.