“It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information”
It is rare these days to find an opportunity to quote Oscar Wilde on a topic so relevant to IT today. With information growing at exponential rates, IT is not only challenged to capture, store and deliver all that data to the business, but the business is faced with the even bigger hurdle of trying to navigate all that data to uncover the relevant information they can turn to competitive advantage.
Many organizations have already invested significant time and money implementing a number of reporting and analysis projects to deliver information to the business. However, these projects are not realizing the anticipated broad user adoption across every level of the organization. In a recent market survey, The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) found that an average of 18 percent of potential BI users actively use BI tools today (TDWI’s “Enterprise Business Intelligence: Strategies and Technologies for Deploying BI on an Enterprise Scale,” August 2005).
So, what is preventing broader user adoption when today’s modern Web technology has advanced to provide more realms of possibility? It all boils down to one barrier – simple accessibility, and business intelligence vendors like Cognos have recognized the need to put information in more peoples’ hands, and leveraged modern technology and new approaches to offer organizations a way to get there.
The mind of the end user
Organizations spend a lot of time and effort researching appropriate technology tools, deploying the solution, and training end users. Sometimes it feels like this effort was wasted when end users feel challenged or frustrated and stop using the new technologies, favoring instead, the familiar comfort of “how we used to do it.” The benefits of business intelligence are clear, and in a logical conversation, end users appreciate the value and understand its ability to help them do their jobs better and make more effective business decisions. However, end users cite four main concerns when trying to address the business challenge of leveraging information more broadly across every level in their organization:
• The tools are too hard to use;
• The information is hard to find;
• The data should be provided in tools they are already familiar with like spreadsheets; and
• There is so much information, they only want to focus on what is significant enough to require taking action.
Let each individual define ease of use for themselves
So why, when every business intelligence vendor claims ease of use, and many reports and graphs tools look similar on the screen, is ease of use still a problem? Quite simply, the needs of the business are so diverse among the end users and each person has his or her own idea of “ease of use.” An executive may want to have a dashboard or scorecard; the line of business manager may want the daily report of sales period on period; a brand manager may want to analyze regional or geographical trends in product line sales; and a sales person may just want a simple report that delivers them tracking of sales versus quota. Indeed, one individual person may need a mix of technologies where they have full ad-hoc access to information for their department, but just want to keep tabs on other areas of the business through a dashboard.
Historically, different tools were deployed to address each need – be that reporting, analysis, scorecarding, and dashboard tools – each coming from different vendors. In fact, many BI vendors today, if they offer a number of these capabilities, still have different tools hidden under their “single branded” marketing. The trouble with this approach is multiple tools result in multiple user interfaces to learn, multiple views of data, and most likely, different numbers even though the data may well be derived from the same sources.
What if each user was provided with just the capabilities they need for their job and yet be able to graduate to more sophisticated capabilities as they need them? And, what if this role-based approach was provided in the same product so that every person could be working from a single data foundation and collaborate with each other on reports and analysis just as they will collaborate when it is comes to decision-time? Cognos, a leading BI vendor, recognized this need for different roles on a common platform more than four years ago and invested in a complete re-architecture to provide all business user capabilities within a single SOA platform. This move has revolutionized the way end users interact with BI:
• eliminating multiple learning curves,
• providing ease of use to each individual, and
• ensuring each user has consistent access to information.
Deliver information to the business with familiar tools
It would be unusual to find a business person who is not familiar with Office, and I don’t mean the sitcom TV show, but Word, PowerPoint and Excel. The challenge with using these tools for information delivery is that each person can create his or her own version of data, resulting in each person experiencing the typical meeting where more time is spent reconciling numbers than discussing what the numbers mean to the business. So accessibility means providing users with information they need in the tools they are familiar with, but ensuring links back to the corporate-sanctioned set of information. This approach balances the need for information access with the need for information control, and business intelligence vendors like Cognos have delivered integration technology to seamlessly navigate BI data within Office and keep it refreshed and current as if the business person was using the BI interface.
Use search to find information even if a report doesn’t yet exist
At home, when you are looking for that specific flat screen TV to adorn your living room, do you make a list of stores and then visit each in turn to find availability and pricing? Probably not – your first step is to use Internet search to find what you want. So, why, when the business is looking for “Sales in the East Region,” should end users be expected to know which system holds that data and which report to open and read. Using search to find Business Intelligence information opens up the world of structured data to everyone in the business. The user only need know what he or she is looking for, and need have no knowledge of where it is stored or what report to access.
In the past, Business Intelligence vendors have typically provided simple text search of report titles within their tools. However, a recent spate of product announcements from these vendors has taken this simplistic approach to a whole new level by bringing Internet-like search to the world of structured data. Cognos has really lead the field with its product that provides search capabilities where any business user, even those that have never used BI, can type in “East Region Sales” and receive relevant reports in the search results. Behind the scenes, the search capabilities obey security access rules to not only search existing reports but search the metadata of all available BI information, and if necessary, generate the report even if it has never existed before. Of course, this relies on a sound single business metadata model to “index” the information and provide the business terms so that the search can deliver consistent results. Let’s face it, no-one ever went to training classes to learn Google, so applying search to BI really opens up accessibility to everyone in the organization to find the information they need in a low-cost manner. In addition, this BI search tied to Google, IBM, Autonomy, FAST and others links unstructured data, like sales reports and presentations, to the BI structured data to give the business the most complete picture possible in a paradigm they already know how to use.
Let the significant information find the right business person
Using role-based BI and Search for information access assumes the business knows to look for information. But, what if the process was reversed - the information found the business person based on identifying significant numbers, and knowing who cares about that in the organization. Think about the typical reporting scenario where a 60-page report arrives at each line manager’s desk every month. Each manager then searches through the whole report only to find eight times out of 10 that everything is running smoothly. In the past, IT looked to tackle this information overload problem by deploying alerting capabilities, for example when sales are off target by five percent or more, alert the sales manager. This was the right idea but alerting simply resulted in spamming, and frustrated the business user until IT was asked to turn off alerts capability. The good news is that like search, exception-based (or as it is now called event-driven) BI has advanced well beyond these crude alerting approaches.
Business intelligence vendors, like Cognos, have built sophisticated condition handling to monitor significant information conditions (or events) over time to provide different action paths for new and ongoing events while eliminating spamming. And, most importantly, this approach also enables escalation to different individuals and informs the business when an issue has been resolved. This “information to action” path puts the right information in the right business person’s hands at the right time using e-mails, dashboard headlines, and other delivery mechanisms. In this way, the business can proactively focus on what really matters most.
Making information part of everyday business life
A 2005 Aberdeen Group study reported that “enterprises with best-in-class, closed loop performance management programs consistently outperform their competitors across all industries and company sizes,” (Aberdeen Group’s “Closed Loop Corporate Performance Management Benchmark Report,” March 2005).
With the advances in business intelligence to mold BI to each user’s needs, enable information search to be as easy as using the Internet, deliver data to familiar everyday tools, and deliver only significant information to the right person at the right time, companies are able to push BI to more users and make faster, more effective business decisions. Within this context, Wilde’s quote could be rewritten today to say: “It is a very good thing that nowadays there are so few barriers to information access.”