One size won

Julie Gill, assistant vice-president of information services for Guardian Group of Funds in Toronto, recalls gathering the business stakeholders at the firm to identify process gaps and business needs before considering specific solutions. While most BI vendors include pre-built analytical applications with their software packages, it is still necessary to massage these tools into a form that directly addresses a company’s business processes.Text

Confident that the technology would follow, they instead focused on the business issues. This approach won enthusiastic buy-in from the business units and senior management. After that she didn’t have to push business process changes. The business units came to her to find out if the technology would support desired changes.

In order to develop the specialized tools to realize their vision, Guardian turned to Information Builders’ consulting group who worked with the company to customize the basic toolset.

While most BI vendors include pre-built analytical applications with their software packages, it is still necessary to massage these tools into a form that directly addresses a company’s business processes. Certainly, companies should not expect that they can simply migrate existing BI tools to front line workers.

First of all, stresses Joanne Friedman, principal of Toronto-based consulting group Connekted Minds Inc. “Those tools were not geared for that level of use, so you can get into this quagmire where companies go out and spend a lot of money buying these tools and then find that the outcome that they achieve is very different from what they expected.”

Paul Rodwick, vice-president of business analytics at Siebel Systems Inc., clearly understands that in order to make BI truly useful to the front line it must be delivered in a way that is immediately understandable, and has to direct people to take appropriate action. He argues that operational BI tools need to be placed into a context with which people are familiar. In short, “BI has to be driven into the operational application that the front line already uses.”

Since BI is a front-end application, the user interface is a key battleground for the big vendors.

Traditional BI power users typically work with application-specific screens to generate custom queries and reports, and these will continue to be offered. On the other hand, many executives and managers have grown comfortable with Microsoft Excel as their primary tool for manipulating data and generating visual represenations of that data.

Industry observers believe that Microsoft’s recent announcement that it will include a huge helping of BI in its upcoming Office 12 release, demonstrates the company’s confidence in its ability to leverage the ubiquity of Microsoft Office to make considerable headway in this market.

In particular, Business Scorecard Manager will allow Microsoft Office users to connect through Excel or SharePoint and SQL Server, to a variety of data sources.

Interfacing with the masses

Information Builders, among others, is focusing on the Web as the way to bring BI to the masses. The company’s WebFOCUS product is really the front end for a range of technologies, including iWay, developed to extract data directly from the source. But according to Michael Corcoran, chief communications officer for Information Builders, WebFOCUS also plays nicely with Excel. “Everything that we provide to a Web service or printed report can be gotten through Excel without any change.”

Siebel Analytics has close ties with the company’s CRM applications, but Paul Rodwick explains that the product is able to integrate and drive content onto the screens of other applications using industry standard interfaces. With a quiver full of pre-built analytical applications, Siebel Analytics allows customers to quickly deploy the BI solution, he says.

These options give customers an enormous amount of flexibility when it comes to presenting information to end users, he adds. In fact, some companies are considering the use of BI tools to allow their own customers and trading partners to interact directly with their information.

Aside from the security and privacy concerns this engenders, Joanne Friedman, principal of consulting group Connekted Minds Inc., cautions that pushing BI beyond the enterprise, while a useful concept, requires particular attention paid to the context and relevance of the information in determining its value.

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