Five Key Trends Driving the Future of BI

What’s ahead for BI? We offer five trends happening now that are irreversible and have substantial implications for BI.

By Dave Wells, Consultant, InfoCentric

[Editor’s Note: Dave Wells is among the instructors at TDWI’s World Conference in Chicago June 6-10. Dave will lead separate sessions about performance management, business analytics, and the art and practices of information management.]

Business intelligence (BI) has changed substantially over the past decade, shifting from an emerging practice to a mainstream business competency, and from very high-cost to affordable for small and mid-sized businesses. BI has matured, but maturity does not imply that BI is static and unchanging. Expect continued change in BI, and consider how these influences should shape your BI plans and directions.

Trend #1: Cloud Computing

In The Big Switch1, Nicholas Carr says that it all begins with fiber optic cable. By some estimates, enough cable was laid during the dot-com boom to circle the earth 11,000 times. With this new, fast, and powerful communications capability, grid computing becomes possible. It is now practical to link together hundreds or thousands of computers. Add virtualization to the grid and the capacity and capability expands.

Computers of different kinds -- running Unix, Linux, Windows, Mac, or other OSes -- are able to work as if they are one machine. Communication and coordination between machines of different types is no longer a barrier. The capability of any machine to masquerade as any other type enables what is known today as cloud computing. Furthermore, cloud makes computing as a service possible: infrastrcture-as-a-service (IaaS), software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS), and data-as-a-service (DaaS).

All of this -- abundant and cheap bandwidth, grid and virtualization, cloud computing, services, and appliances -- positions computing power to become a utility and a commodity. The implications of cloud computing are many and far-reaching. For computing in general, and for BI in particular, the cloud brings changes in roles, responsibilities, expectations, capabilities, costs, and value.

Trend #2: Commodity Analytics

The move to hosted services reaches to the core of BI with analytics as services. As analytic technologies grow, off-the-shelf analytics become readily available. The old adage “buy for parity, build for advantage” applies here. When analytics become commoditized, they are no longer a source of competitive advantage.

You must look elsewhere for advantage, and much of that advantage is in the data that fuels analytic processes. The data you collect and the skills with which you manage that data make a greater difference than the analytic processes and the metrics derived from them. Data integration and data quality become big players in creating advantage. Also expect data volume to increase. Big data becomes increasingly important, and DaaS has a role in managing large data volumes.

Advantage is also found at the back end of analytic processes: the understanding, insight, communications, decisions, and actions that follow analysis. Commodity analytics can be used to advantage by giving careful attention to the human side of analytics – the who, why, and where of business analysis.

Trend #3: Desktop Analytics

As analytics becomes a mainstream competency, it is moving from statisticians and IT backrooms to the desktops of business managers. What was once the domain of analytics professionals -- statisticians, modelers, and the like -- has become a management responsibility. It is not statisticians and data miners who need and seek insight but managers of the business who have become de facto business analysts.

The controller performing revenue and cash flow analysis, the compliance officer performing risk analysis, and the marketing manager analyzing campaign effectiveness -- all have some business analyst roles and responsibilities. These people are analytic professionals though they are not professional analysts.

Next-generation BI will meet the needs of this new generation of business analysts. Analytic tools and technologies must be intuitive and easy to use. They will have embedded statistical functions that make statistical analysis accessible to non-statisticians. They’ll support autonomy, exploration, and experimentation that are central to analysis, while providing support for local data and ready connection to enterprise-managed data. Perhaps most important, they’ll support the human dimension of analysis -- finding understanding and insight through communication and participation.

Trend #4: Conversation and Collaboration

Social media has changed how we connect and communicate with others. This is true within your company, with your customers, and with your business partners. The next generation of business managers has known technology from childhood. They thrive in a world of instant messaging, blogs, gaming, social networking, and online collaboration.

Collaborative analytics is a must-have capability to create advantage and drive business value. Value is not derived from analysis but from what we do with the products of analysis -- the resulting decisions and actions. Analysis drives conversation, and conversation drives good decisions.

It is also important to recognize social media as a robust data source for analytics and intelligence. The unstructured data that flows through social channels is a rich source of insight when techniques such as text analytics and sentiment analysis are part of your BI toolkit.

Trend #5: Mobility

Traditional computers are quickly giving way to mobile devices as primary means to send and receive information. The conversation and collaboration implications of mobile devices are obvious, but the BI impacts reach farther. From performance management alerts to dashboards and scorecards, mobile devices and mobile apps must be considered.

Mobile devices change more than communications. They bring new challenges to visualization. Consider, for example, the design of dashboards and scorecards for viewing and interaction on a mobile phone.

A Final Word

These trends are real, they are happening now, they are irreversible, and they have substantial implications for BI. A sustainable BI program must look to the future. That future is certain to include cloud computing, commodity analytics, desktop analytics, collaborative culture, and mobile devices.

Note 1: The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton, 2008)

Dave Wells is a consultant, mentor, and teacher in the field of business intelligence. He can be reached at

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