Analysts in Action: Getting Analytics Off the Test Track

Business intelligence vendors still seem to run on a test track while users just want to get on the road with data.

You may remember the Shell gasoline TV ad from years ago. It touted "Platformate." Its mileage-boosting benefits were shown on a desert test track with a car bursting through a paper banner, shreds flying.

If only today's BI vendors could explain their products' benefits so plainly. At the recent TDWI World Conference in Las Vegas, I asked at most vendor briefings, "What can you do with your product that couldn't be done before? Why should I care about the new-and-improved black box, especially for those ultimate end users who want only to analyze data?"

Mostly what I heard, essentially, was "faster," "bigger," or "better." Even with test-track marketing, that's less a burst than a bulge.

What could explain this? 1010data co-founder Sandy Steier shook his head and said, "I think most of these people [vendors] don't have a clue what their customers do with their tools."

Wherescape CEO Michael Whitehead said that with BI's potential benefits "we should be showered with money." Instead, he said, "I worry for our [industry's] future if we don't bridge the gap from the IT people and those who need the data."

In her Monday morning keynote, Jill Dyché of Baseline Consulting recalled with derision the IT worker who wanted his business users to know only that the company was approaching one petabyte of data in storage. She argued that to have value, BI must be tied to corporate strategy.

Whether BI tools run on a test track or drive toward a company goal, back-end advances will continue, as they should. Even today, research continues in the oil industry, long after most consumers decided that gas was gas. You can still overhear Chevron engineers discuss lubricants in the quaint neighborhood where they have lunch -- while drivers on the interstate just 50 yards away don't think at all about wheel bearings.

What's the universal company goal -- the end game we're all looking for in BI? Everyone in business is headed for data analysis.

At QlikView, for example, everyone really means every person on staff. The company's new product advocate, Donald Farmer, found that out during new-employee orientation -- when he found that even the company janitor was learning to use the tool.

We sat far down the hall from vendor briefings, and he made the most sense of anybody. "The discussions down the hall about data availability," he said, "are like the ones between Edison and Tesla about AC and DC. It will just go away."

He compared data availability to corporate credit cards for travel expenses. How easy it would be, he pointed out, for the many people at the conference with corporate AmEx cards to embarrass the employer or commit other mischief there in Sin City. Yet no one frets. Why is use of data so different?

With modern tools like QlikView, Tableau, and others, consuming the data -- and publishing it -- is becoming easier than ever. What's more, people want to do it and feel impatient with those who stand in the way. For example, an executive at Microsoft, Farmer's recent employer, once showed him his laptop screen: a coherent and succinct display of the man's entire financial status. The executive said to him, "I can do this at home, and these guys [his IT team] can't give it to me at work with business data. How come?"

Data availability and data analysis will become ubiquitous. Data quality will become a personal issue.

Business people once dictated letters to secretaries, who corrected grammar, phrasing and phrasing and typed the document. Now we're all typists. We once gave telephone numbers to an operator, and now we're all operators.

Data analysis is the road ahead. Let's get off the test track.

Ted Cuzzillo is a journalist and industry analyst focused on analysts' tools and needs as well as the environments in which they work. You can contact him directly at analysts@datadoodle.com. If you're a data analyst, he'd appreciate your participation in his survey; you'll receive a free preview of his report when it's complete.