Back to basics for business intelligence

Business intelligence (BI), like too many technologies, was over-hyped in its early days. Again, as with many other technologies, this hype was rapidly followed by some very public implementation failures, before everyone settled down and realized, as usually happens, that BI is not the be all and end all that it was often claimed to be.

Now that a measure of sanity and maturity has crept into this market segment, end-user organizations may want to relook at BI, or possibly relook at failed/under-performing implementations, in a bid to derive the value that was originally promised for this investment.

A little bit of history

“If one takes a step back,” says Davide Hanan, MD of Cape-based BI distributor Qlikview, “one should try and understand what BI’s objectives are, and why we have it at all. If you look back 20 or 30 years, the focus of IT has really been in terms of automating and integrating business processes — just about everything in business today has been automated.

“In that process, a lot of information has been collected — business systems are very good at capturing information and putting it into databases.”

Organizations thus had a lot of information but no real mechanism to access it — and that is where BI came about, because there was a very serious gap there, he adds.

“BI’s aim is to give business information back to the users, and allow them to do analysis on it and get insights into the business and its operations, so that they can make effective decisions. And, while there is no doubt that it can do that, the problem to date has been in the way that information delivery is done,” Hanan adds.

Bill Hoggarth, MD of the local office of BI and analytics vendor, SAS Institute, says that just ten years ago, state of the art BI consisted of ad hoc departmental desk-top analysis. “Managers had executive information system (EIS) dashboards, which were typically inflexible and difficult to manage,” he states. “At the same time, ERP systems were emerging and promising enormous intelligence benefits.

However, these function exclusively in the operational space, and, despite the promises, are unable to provide intelligence delivery across the enterprise.

“Traditionally,” he says, “BI concerned itself with data access and management, as well as reporting. Intelligence solutions today transform the huge volumes of data, voice and text collected by organizations today into actionable intelligence. BI has expanded into forecasting, predictive modelling and optimization. Thus, instead of answering rear-view mirror questions like “What happened?”, intelligence today answers questions such as “What will happen next?” and “What is the best that can happen?”

“BI is a tremendous growth area in IT, but it is important to understand what it can deliver,” cautions Keith Fenner, director Solutions & Business Development at AccTech Systems in Durban. “BI is a way to measure performance, and, when combined with other key performance indicators (KPIs), can deliver accurate, timely information to the right person at the right time.

“But,” he says, “a BI project must not be considered in isolation. In order to deliver, it must capably consolidate information from all areas of the business across disparate systems in order to create a single warehouse of data. Furthermore, the dashboards of information must be appropriate to the decisions being made. There is little value in delivering supply chain data to the credit control manager. It is the delivery and interpretation of data that adds value to the organization.”

While BI can provide a useful snapshot of a business’ state of affairs, it cannot, as Magix Integration director, Amir Lubashevsky, points out, make business decisions for you. “BI tools are not the kind of tools that will provide analysis and decisions,” he adds. “You also need to fit your BI system to another system to get real value out of it — it is not a business solution on its own. BI can do powerful reporting and analysis, but, unless it is integrated into something before that or after that, you will not get the maximum value out of it.”

Worst-case scenario

“BI has been guilty of information overload, and it should be remembered that BI is the tool that delivers performance and analytical data to make decisions. It should assist with uncovering trends, good or bad, and deliver this to the right management team at the right time. The presentation of the data is crucial to the project’s success, and understanding how the data is to be received, and by whom, is vital,” says Fenner.

Many BI tools also hang around on corporate IT systems, gathering virtual dust, until the time comes for the annual report to be generated. Linda Joyce, client liaison of Bateleur Software, says that from a user perspective there may be many valid reasons why the tools are not used. “The reports take too long to produce the results of a query, the tools are difficult to use, or other workload priorities prevent users from installing the software and getting to grips with it,” she says.

Dave McWilliam, MD at BI vendor, Cognos SA, says that the major reason for BI failures at an enterprise level is that it is often not aligned with the organization’s strategy, and, therefore, is not able to deliver true value as an enterprise BI solution. “In many cases, BI has been implemented to address isolated needs within an organization or department, and has been successful at that. However, it has not been designed as the delivery mechanism for strategic decision-making.

“In order to provide the right level of visibility into an organization’s performance, BI needs to be elevated to a level where it is viewed as the standard provider of intelligently interpreted information, and used as the basis for decision-making throughout the organization,

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