This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.
My original intent this month was to write about how business intelligence vendors are beginning to add search capabilities to their products. The more I thought about this topic, however, the more I realized that search is just one of several collaborative techniques used to interact with business intelligence (BI) and other IT applications. I decided, therefore, to broaden the discussion to look at how BI processing and collaborative processing are being integrated to support a cohesive workgroup environment for business users.
Business User Collaboration
The methods used to interact with IT systems have changed dramatically since the early days of terminal-driven mainframe applications. Today’s business users have a powerful array of graphical devices available to them for information processing and collaboration. Depending on network connectivity and the functions required, these interfaces may support thick, thin or mobile client interfaces to IT applications.
The interface used will depend largely on computer skills and the role business users perform in an organization. Information consumers, like executives and line of business (LOB) managers, typically employ thin and mobile interfaces to access, share and collaborate about information. Web-based business portals from companies such as BEA (AquaLogic User Interaction), IBM (WebSphere Portal Server), and Microsoft (SharePoint Portal Server) are commonly used to provide such interfaces.
On the other hand, information producers, such as business analysts, who need more functionality usually employ rich client interfaces to create and manipulate business information. A popular environment for supporting this style of user interaction is Microsoft Office and tools such as Excel, PowerPoint, Word and Outlook.
Regardless of the type of interface used, the way business users interact with an IT system is either by browsing and navigating a set of screens to find the option they need, or by entering a search query to locate a set of possible options. The user then selects the required option, retrieves the required information and, if necessary, communicates with other users about the information, using collaborative techniques such as e-mail and instant messaging.
To simplify the browsing, navigation and searching of information, IT groups organize and categorize information based on a business taxonomy. The taxonomy enables both the processing and the information retrieved to be personalized according to the role the business user has in the organization. This is very different from the way information is accessed on the public Internet where information retrieval is often based on how popular, and how often, a piece of information is retrieved.
Adding Business Intelligence to the Mix
User interaction in the BI environment has closely followed the evolution of the user interface used in collaborative processing. BI applications have evolved from using terminals to thick clients, and more recently to thin client Web interfaces. To date, however, most of these interfaces have been designed for more experienced business users, such as business analysts. There has even been pressure on the BI vendors to emulate the richness of their thick client interfaces in the Web interfaces they provide. Support for business portals and collaborative techniques has been minimal, and often proprietary in nature.
BI vendors have suddenly realized, however, that they need to make business intelligence more accessible to a wider range of business users. This is especially the case for operational BI applications, which are often targeted at LOB users who may have limited computer skills and whose job is not to sit at a computer screen all day. To be successful here, BI applications must be easier to use and must be integrated into the collaborative workgroup environment.
The need to supply “business intelligence to the masses” is leading to improved support for business portals and better integration with workgroup environments such as Microsoft Office. BI vendors are also not only providing traditional browsing and navigation techniques for accessing and processing business intelligence, but are also adding support for search as well. In the last few months, for example, Cognos, Information Builders and SAS have all announced relationships with Google to add search to their products. As I have already pointed out, however, organizations need a taxonomy and information categorization to really make enterprise search work. Google is not well known for its support in these areas, but is nevertheless improving its enterprise search capabilities through its Google Search Appliance and Google OneBox Enterprise Initiative. It will face strong competition, however, from vendors including IBM, Oracle and Microsoft.
The bottom line for both BI developers and vendors is that it will be crucial for them to understand the collaborative workgroup computing needs and strategies of companies, and it will be essential for them to integrate their BI solutions into the collaborative workgroup environment.