Q&A: Web 2.0 Functions Boost BI’s Power

Bringing search and Web 2.0 into next-generation BI improves user access and the decision-making process.

Combining BI with simple search capabilities and Web 2.0 functions such as user-contributed content can make it more powerful and pervasive -- leading to the era of BI 2.0. “BI users should be able to create an iGoogle or myYahoo,” says Tiemo Winterkamp, senior VP of global marketing at arcplan, a company that offers BI analytics and search tools that access multiple data sources in their native environments.

“That’s when BI gets personal, because it has your own content,” Winterkap adds, “and if you can share the content and make it searchable for others, you close the loop. That’s BI 2.0.”

BI This Week: When we talk about bringing Web 2.0 functionality into business intelligence, what sort of functionality do you mean?

Tiemo Winterkamp: Primarily, I mean the functions that all of us already know how to use from Google,, Ebay, Facebook and other Web 2.0 sites. First, it’s search -- most of the things we do on the Internet today start, more or less, with an unstructured search. Then it’s commenting -- usually by writing text, but lately we’ve seen the addition of audio and video commentary becoming more popular. Rating is another quick feedback option, represented by stars, +1’s, or Likes. Perhaps the best part about these Web 2.0 functions is that nearly everyone knows how to use them by this point, so no education is required.

The idea of bringing Web 2.0 into BI is important because it allows employees to use these already acquired skills to enhance the business information they use every day. It encourages them to interact with the data in new ways and share information amongst themselves so the best data rises to the top, investments are made in keeping the best and most-used systems and reports, and decision makers better understand the value of their overall BI investments.

How effective is search right now in the context of BI and data warehousing? What about collaboration capabilities?

Search, if available in today’s tools, has a marginal effect right now. If the search capability limits results to just a single vendor’s BI platform, it may be a nice feature but does not expand the reach of BI to outside the traditional 15 to 20 percent of power users, nor does it provide any additional insight.

In order to have real impact, BI search should not be limited to just a single BI environment, nor to just BI as we think of it today (reports and dashboards). It also needs to embrace other systems that can hold unstructured data (for example, content management systems, e-mail systems, and so forth). The search result list will give you the option to decide what’s relevant to you as a user.

As for collaboration, the capability is there, but many BI tools are lagging behind in this area. For BI adoption to significantly increase, collaboration functions need to be included because they make BI and other decision-relevant information more personal to users. It can be as simple as authorship being designated on reports so users know who to go to with feedback or enhancement requests or as advanced as feedback and enhancement requests being made through the BI system itself. The more engaged users are, the more valuable the BI system becomes to the organization.

Why is BI use so low among everyday office users? The answer that’s often given is that it’s too complex. Is that what you see?

Complexity is often one side of the story, but the other is that people simply do not know what’s already available in their BI systems or other content storage systems. Users may be hesitant to go down the long road of creating a new report if they aren’t confident in their expertise in using the system.

Search, however, opens up new starting points for users. Imagine needing a set of data quickly, running a search, and finding a report that matches your criteria and has a rating of 4 out of 5 stars. Even if it’s not 100 percent what you were looking for, it’s a place to start and sets you off and running. Often tons of such reports are available in an organization; we just need to make use of them by applying modern functions to our existing BI heritage.

What is missing from BI search right now -- is it the “Web 2.0” element of contributed content that is missing?

First, BI tools need to make their “walled content” available to the outside and provide appropriate keywords, descriptions, and so forth to external search functions. In doing so, BI tools will make search results more relevant and appropriate for users.

This is improving, and we now see vendors providing such options to developers -- but yes, more options for contributing your own analytical content and findings is the important next step. Depending on a company’s internal processes, any report, dashboard, and analysis might be automatically published to the BI search function -- that’s a good first step. Adding your own findings from reports and being able to easily access them (such as on a “BI Wall” or personal BI widget on a desktop) takes BI search a step further.

Users should be able to create something like an iGoogle or myYahoo. That’s when BI gets personal, because it has your own content. If you can share it and make it searchable for others, you close the loop. That’s BI 2.0.

Contributing content yourself also gets you visibility -- along with accountability -- and the option to receive feedback. That’s a bit different from the normal search you do with Google or Bing, but it’s necessary for BI to truly become collaborative.

So is searching vast amounts of information across the enterprise, in different systems, and adding user input to it, an ability that BI users simply don’t have right now?

That’s correct; users don’t have this capability right now. They may have parts of it with Enterprise Content Search solutions, but not with a clear focus on BI, and the goal to support and improve the overall decision-making process of everyday users.

The BI market is estimated by Gartner and other analysts to be about $10 billion in annual spending today. If we consider the last 10 years, we may have invested more than $50 billion in BI systems and infrastructure. With BI 2.0 and search and collaboration functions, we can make these investments more accessible, more open, and more effective. Dashboards and reports are no longer neutral if they become visible with an author and a ranking. Those pieces allow us to show the relevance of BI investments -- who is using them and how well they are perceived? Will IT departments like this? There might be hesitance in the beginning, but project leads of larger BI projects need to understand what’s really used by their audience. BI 2.0 can deliver this information.

How important is collaboration in BI tools? Are there ways for users to collaborate using standard BI tools?

Collaboration in and around BI tools will be essential in the future. We are used to collaboration functions in our private use of the Internet, and this trend is moving over into business -- similar to how the iPhone was popularized by consumers first and has now entered the business arena with tremendous success.

We see some improvements in collaboration features in BI tools, but these are often just functional additions to older tools. To really make use of Web 2.0-style collaboration, we need a system designed from the ground up with that in mind, and incorporating different BI vendors. It’s a matter of fact that larger organizations have more than one BI solution implemented -- and often more than three. Search and collaboration among all of them is the ultimate (and achievable) goal.

What is the ROI on a BI search product? Can its usefulness be measured in terms of a return on investment?

As of today I would say no, not easily. Does finding a report faster (or even finding it at all, and thus not creating a new version of the same thing) have a measurable cost savings? Perhaps, but it would be hard to quantify. Depending on the size of the company, the avoidance of duplicate work may add up to many thousands of dollars saved per month.

However, simply considering search as a standalone enhancement will not deliver the goods. Once you have commented, rated, and ranked reports, PDF files, e-mail, and more on a single screen, you have better overall insight into what is available and a better feeling that you haven’t overlooked an information source relevant to your decision. As a result, you will make a decision with less delay. I don’t know who can argue that sound decisions quickly made add to the bottom line of the company.

What does arcplan bring to this discussion? We started evaluating the market for Web 2.0 options in early 2009 and came up with a prototype in late 2009 that we called Project Vega. We introduced that to some of our larger, long-term customers. They all indicated that they have similar problems with providing BI information and tools to everyday users -- and not just to the 20 percent of power users and planners in the organization. With their feedback in mind, we developed our first release of the product now called arcplan Engage. This solution incorporates many of the 2.0 features we’ve talked about here, making BI-centered search and collaboration available today. Users can make use of any arcplan Enterprise -- our core BI and reporting platform -- investment they’ve made, but can also extend search to Microsoft SharePoint, to e-mails, and to other IT systems using our Search PlugIn API (application programming interface).

Even without a dedicated API in place, arcplan Engage provides a function we call “Engage It” where you can take any other Web report and tag it for Engage. In your next search, you may find not only arcplan reports, but also SAP Business Objects, MicroStrategy, and QlikTech reports in your results list. Any user can add reports and data, with no IT involvement required. That’s how you can contribute existing BI content easily today -- in Web 2.0 style.

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