Gartner Business Intelligence Summit: Embed BI within business processes

The success of business intelligence increasingly depends on how well BI is embedded within business processes, said a keynote speaker at the Gartner BI Summit.

CHICAGO -- When she noticed the shoreline receding and the waves subsiding into a frothy stew, 10-year-old Tilly Smith, vacationing with her parents in Thailand in December 2004, recognized the signs. She alerted authorities, who quickly cleared the beaches. Not long after, a mammoth tsunami slammed onto shore.

Smith, a British national who learned about tsunamis in school, was credited with saving up to 100 lives.

The incident illustrates the importance of connecting information to action, according to Kurt Schlegel, research vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. In his keynote address at the Gartner BI Summit, Schlegel invoked Smith's heroic story as an important lesson for businesses. He said organizations that enmesh business intelligence (BI) with business processes are in a better position to take effective action when critical information becomes available, as Smith did, than those organizations whose BI systems live in isolation.

Too many organizations approach BI from the bottom up, Schlegel said, focusing on data quality and creating isolated reports upon request, but lacking any unifying vision. The result is an "urban sprawl of reports" that are meaningful only to those individuals who use them.

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"We also need to extend up and deliver what's called strategy-driven analytic applications," Schlegel said. "This style is much more focused on overall corporate performance management in a top-down way. We need to think more about how this information is going to be used, how we can insert some form of business intelligence into a business process to make it more actionable."

To do so, here are the five key steps that Schlegel said organizations should address:

  • Business vision and sponsorship. More than just signing a check, business sponsors must share in BI successes, and failures, with IT. "The relationship between IT and the business is one of teamwork," Schlegel said. "That type of balance between the right IT and business expertise … is critical."
  • Data lineage, governance and quality. This is a no-brainer, Schlegel said. "If we're going to make decisions based on this information, we've got to trust it."
  • Trade-off analysis. All business decisions require trade-offs. BI systems must combine planning, reporting and analysis to help decision makers weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. Architects need to take this into account.
  • New skills. Forecasting and simulating scenarios are not currently considered fundamental BI skills, Schlegel said, but they should be. And they must extend throughout an organization, which can be achieved through a BI competency center.
  • Cultural change. Schlegel said executives should ask themselves, "How do we as an organization change our culture away from gut feel and common knowledge to making decisions based on empirical research?" The goal, Schlegel said, is for organizations to view BI as a resource with which to model potential decisions before taking action.

To connect with more business processes, BI applications must be made more intuitive, Schlegel said, making them easier for business users to operate. Ultimately, technological innovations are the key to breaking down adoption barriers and making BI more pervasive, he said, just as improved Web browsers like Netscape spurred widespread Internet use.

Attendee Andrea McLester, a BI manager for development and implementation at the Richmond, Va.-based United Network for Organ Sharing, said her organization implemented a pilot program of Business Objects' BI suite in December of 2006 to better monitor the 22,000 organ transplants that occur in the U.S. each year. She said addressing the cultural issues that Schlegel mentioned -- convincing employees to abandon old ways of decision making for analytical, data-driven methods -- was a challenge at UNOS, at least initially.

To combat resistance from UNOS's 300 or so employees, McLester set out on an education initiative. She addressed the entire organization, explaining how BI tools would help workers make better and quicker decisions, ultimately resulting in more urgently needed organ transplants for patients. McLester also held a BI department open house so employees could ask questions and explore the BI applications before they were deployed.

"We try to make it fun and as non-threatening as possible and just push the whole empowerment aspect," McLester said. "As more people have gotten to see the tools that we've built so far and they learn more about Business Objects and seeing the interfaces, I think they're getting really excited about it."

McLester said by shortening the time it takes to process transplant cases, BI is ultimately helping UNOS save lives, much like Tilly Smith did in Thailand four years ago.

"Over 100,00 people died in the [2004 tsunami] and the bitter irony of it is the world had the same information as Tilly Smith. Scientists knew there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean that was going to cause a tsunami heading to the coast, but there was no way to connect that insight, that awareness to somebody who could make the decision to clear the beaches and bring people inland," Gartner's Schlegel told attendees. "This is why it's so critical for us, as BI architects, to think about the business processes."

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