Pervasive business intelligence: Are organizations really ready?

Extending business intelligence capabilities enterprise-wide takes considerable time and training, an effort not all organizations are ready to undertake.

When it comes to priorities at Business Objects, extending business intelligence (BI) capabilities to the everyday business user is right at the top of the list.

IT departments have invested huge sums to upgrade their data management and business intelligence infrastructure – building massive data warehouses, for example – and are anxious to capitalize on their investments by spreading analytics capabilities throughout organizations, according to Jonathan Becher, senior vice president for marketing at Business Objects.

Business Objects, of course, hopes to capitalize on this "irreversible" trend, as Becher characterized it, and the company is committing significant resources to making its tools easier for non-BI experts to use. The company's recent release of Xcelsius Present is just one example.

"The challenge for us is to develop more and more applications that have analytics under the covers so the end user doesn't know there are in fact some algorithms going on behind the scenes," said Sanjay Poonen, senior vice president and general manager for performance optimization applications at Business Objects. "The business user just happens to use it, and it makes their life easier."

In other words, the Paris and San Jose, Calif.-based software maker, which was acquired by SAP in January, hopes to integrate these easier-to-use BI tools with SAP's ERP, human resources and other business applications to further increase BI's reach within organizations.

The concept of extending BI capabilities to the everyday or "casual" user is not a new one, however. BI vendors, including Microsoft, have been talking about it for years but have yet to realize their goal. Becher and Poonen hope that is about to change.

But not all Business Objects customers are taken with the idea of rolling out BI capabilities to their frontline workers, at least in the near term, Forbes Media among them.

At the end of the day, [BI software] is still just a tool. It's not clairvoyant.

Mykolas Rambus, head of IT and special projects, Forbes Media

The New York-based media company, which publishes Forbes magazine, among other properties, uses Business Objects analytics software to help advertisers better target their campaigns. But the company limits its use of BI technology to "super power-users" only, according to Mykolas Rambus, head of IT and special projects.

Rambus said the problem with extending BI capabilities to the masses is not necessarily the complexity of the tools but a lack of user understanding of how to make the most of them.

"At the end of the day, [BI software] is still just a tool," Rambus said. "It's not clairvoyant. You've got to figure out what direction it should be looking in or what issues you should be looking at" -- and those decisions are made by people, not technology.

For most organizations, extending BI and analytics capabilities to business users is, in fact, a significant cultural change, a point Business Objects' Becher recognized.

Midmarket companies in particular "are not used to decision making by fact. They're more used to decision making by gut feel," Becher said. "The reality of [business users] seeing data staring them in the face, some of it predictive, and saying, 'I'm willing now to trust the numbers' … is a big cultural shift that has nothing to do with technology."

Even Business Objects customers that have embraced the concept of enterprise-wide BI recognize that making the transition requires considerable effort, namely employee training, both on the front and back ends.

"It takes a fair amount of time to develop the skill set to actually do data warehousing and data architecture," said John Mayer, director of consulting and testing services at Apotex, a Canadian pharmaceuticals company and Business Objects customer. "And we're also focused on providing a common training program for our end users to get them used to the tools."

For its part, Business Object acknowledges that employee training is necessary to successfully implement BI enterprise-wide. To that end, the company and its partners offer education and training classes to help employees improve their BI and analytics skills, according to Marge Breya, executive vice president and general manager for Business Objects' BI platform.

But the company seems equally, if not more, focused on making the tools themselves more intuitive and preconfigured in such a way as to limit the damage an unskilled user can cause by using them. Its Polestar BI search tool, for example, is designed to be simple enough for "regular people like product managers" to use, but they "won't be able to use the data in weird ways or inappropriate ways," Breya said.

And customers can expect more in the way of supposed business user-friendly BI tools in the months and years ahead, she said. "Within the next 12 to 24 months, you're going to see some real change in the overall user experience."

Whether customers such as Forbes Media will embrace pervasive BI in the same time frame is another question.

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