Business intelligence basics not just a concern for BI beginners

Craig Stedman, Executive Editor

Whenever I hear (or write) the words "business intelligence competency center," my inner jargon alarm starts beeping. It's a phrase that consultants love and right-thinking journalists want to bury in the linguistic graveyard. But I'm sure that many IT and business professionals who are just trying to get a handle on business intelligence basics in their organizations dream of having a full-fledged BI competency center, with formal processes and dedicated staffing. And even now, with BI well along the technology maturity curve, there's no lack of people at that just-the-basics stage.

Craig Stedman

For example, in my previous column, which focused primarily on a self-service BI program at Quicken Loans, I quoted Chris Wade, manager of technical services at Halogen Software, a vendor of cloud-based talent management applications. Wade's team, consisting of database analysts, a data integration developer and other IT staffers, has started analyzing customer activity logs on an ad hoc basis in an effort to better understand what Halogen users are doing with the Ottawa-based company's software.

Until recently, tech services team members tracked the activity logs only to look for problems that customers had encountered with the software. But Wade told me at the 2013 TDWI BI Executive Summit in Las Vegas that now they're also looking at user behavior -- for example, which features in the software are being used by different customers. The findings initially are being used internally, for such purposes as helping to drive software development plans. Down the road, though, the company potentially could open up the activity data to customers looking to do some usage analysis or benchmarking themselves, he said.

Just the BI basics, please

For now, Wade's team uses a combination of Java code and Oracle database scripts to get at the data. He's investigating BI tools that could provide visual views of the data out of the box, without the services of a dashboard designer being required. Worrying too much about visual appeal and other BI usability issues isn't part of the plan yet, he said: "We're just trying to make it meaningful."

We're just trying to make it meaningful.

Chris Wade,
manager of technical services, Halogen Software

Steve Brescia, manager of enterprise architecture, BI and data management at American Water Works Co. in Voorhees, N.J., is also in the early stages of implementing BI processes for the water and wastewater services provider. American Water went live with an SAP enterprise resource planning system last year. At the TDWI event, Brescia said he expects to have a five-person team in place by year's end to support BI operations against the SAP applications, as well as the company's customer information and enterprise asset management systems.

Initially, American Water's focus is on fundamentals: building the BI team, developing the processes and implementing new data management policies. "We're really at the beginning," Brescia said. "We're just trying to take care of the blocking and tackling around this."

BI tools still being put into limited hands

But business intelligence managers who have moved beyond pulling themselves up by their BI bootstraps shouldn't declare victory just yet. Examples such as the ones above serve as a useful reminder that for all the attention -- and hype -- lavished on BI and analytics tools, the technology isn't as broadly deployed in organizations as many people might think it is.

A data point: Sixty-four percent of the 859 respondents to Dresner Advisory Services LLC's 2012 Wisdom of Crowds survey on the business intelligence market said their BI systems had 100 or fewer users. Another one: According to a survey of 234 BI and IT pros, business users and consultants that was conducted last July by Wayne Eckerson, director of TechTarget Inc.'s BI Leadership Research unit, the average slice of the employees at responding organizations who were directly using BI tools was 26%. That isn't a big number in a BI world that's increasingly gravitating toward self-service applications.

So, there's a long way to go on the BI journey for a lot of companies, no doubt including some that have already set up (yes, I'll say it) business intelligence competency centers or other forms of centralized BI teams. In reality, business intelligence basics aren't just for beginners: There's a whole lot of BI blocking and tackling still to be done out there.

Craig Stedman is SearchBusinessAnalytics's executive editor. Email him at cstedman@techtarget.com.

Follow SearchBusinessAnalytics on Twitter: @BizAnalyticsTT.

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