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A business case for using enterprise 2.0 in business intelligence

Enterprise 2.0 does not replace current approaches – it simply provides innovative ways of quickly building some urgently needed business user capabilities.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

The use of Web 2.0 techniques and technologies in enterprise systems (usually referred to simply as Enterprise 2.0) is changing the way organizations create, integrate, explore, analyze, and deliver information. Used wisely, Enterprise 2.0 can significantly improve the productivity and effectiveness of business users. Inappropriate use of Enterprise 2.0, however, leads to stagnant technology-driven projects, rather than dynamic business solutions that help organizations work smarter and become more competitive.

This series of articles examines the use of Enterprise 2.0 in business intelligence (BI). It looks at Enterprise 2.0 from seven distinct perspectives: information collaboration, information exploration and analysis, information integration, information syndication and delivery, user interface, Web-oriented architecture (WOA), and open source solutions. This first article presents the business case for using Enterprise 2.0 in BI, and also provides a brief overview of each of the seven dimensions. Subsequent articles will discuss of each of the Enterprise 2.0 dimensions in more detail.

The Problem of Product Feature Bloat and Complexity

Most business intelligence applications focus on creating reports and analytics that aid executives and analysts in developing and optimizing strategic and tactical business plans and initiatives. As I have discussed in previous Business Intelligence Network articles, companies now want to take business intelligence to the next level by using it to drive daily business operations and to expand its use to a broader set of users, both inside and outside of the organization.

There are, however, several barriers preventing the expansion of business intelligence to a larger (and often less experienced) audience. One of the biggest hurdles is complexity. BI tools and applications are difficult to use for those people who do not use them regularly, or who are not completely conversant with the data they provide. BI vendors are trying to improve this situation by focusing on supporting productivity suites such as Microsoft Office, delivering analytical results and rules-driven alerts through web-based portals, and adding process-driven analytical workflows to their products. These enhancements, however, take time for vendors to develop and for IT departments to deploy.

Complexity is also caused by the IT industry constantly adding new features and functions to products, often at the expense of usability. The complexity and cost of BI platforms, for example, are steadily increasing as vendors build out their platforms using products acquired from competing vendors. The result is that many solutions are overly complex and contain poorly integrated features that only a few people need, or can even use. The vendor thinking here is that new and more function will lead to more upgrades and broader usage. Many of their customers, however, are beginning to rebel against this trend and are instead looking for simpler and less costly products. This is why there is so much interest in open source.

Every time a new technology comes along, it holds the promise that it will solve the issues of complexity and usability. Often the new technology is simply a repackaging of an old idea with a new name; and, as a result, it usually fails. Even when something fresh and new comes along, it may solve some problems, only to create new ones. The evolution from mainframe to client/server to web computing and now back to server consolidation is a prime example.

There is no magic to solving the complexity and usability issues that exist in many enterprise systems. These systems are, by their nature, complex. This complexity is caused by the large number of technologies and products that have been added to systems over many years of IT development. Unless a company rebuilds these systems from the ground up, there is no easy way to solve the issue of complexity. Companies have to accept there is no magic technology that is likely to come along and change this situation, and this applies equally to Enterprise 2.0. The solution instead is to make small and incremental improvements over a period of time using those technologies and products that provide a quick and sound return on investment. The exciting and unique aspect of Enterprise 2.0 is that it provides new techniques and technologies that can help alleviate certain complexity and usability problems, and this will be the key topic discussed in this series of articles.

The Business Case for Using Enterprise 2.0 in Business Intelligence

Enterprise 2.0 contains some really innovative ideas. Using it in conjunction with traditional approaches for building, deploying, and administering BI applications may provide some valuable improvements, but it will not lead to a dramatic increase in BI usability or the growth that vendors and companies are looking for. Instead, companies need to think outside the traditional IT box, and find new ways of using Enterprise 2.0 – this is the real opportunity that Web 2.0 offers for the enterprise.

Enterprise 2.0 has several features that promote rapid application development and self-service information creation and delivery for less-experienced users. Although these features can help reduce the application backlog, they will, however, often lead to applications and information stores that are outside the domain of IT standards, quality controls, and governance. Despite this, Enterprise 2.0 solutions can provide huge benefits for satisfying certain types of business requirements. The thinking outside of the box here requires organizations to accept that data standards, quality, accuracy, and security are not an all or nothing situation.

Information is never 100 percent accurate or secure, and it is important to define for different business situations how accurate or secure any piece of information needs to be. For many business situations, less accurate or secure information may be perfectly acceptable. The key here is to document the level to which any piece of information can be guaranteed. It is then up to the business user to decide the pros and cons of using this information. This an important topic that will addressed in more detail in subsequent articles.

It is important to emphasize that Enterprise 2.0 does not replace current approaches – it simply provides innovative ways of quickly building some urgently needed business user capabilities. Many of the applications and information stores created using Enterprise 2.0 approaches will be temporary in nature and will have a limited life span. These applications and stores will be replaced over time by new ones as market forces and business needs change. The benefit of Enterprise 2.0 lies is its ability not only to support rapid development, but also to quickly adapt to changing requirements. A small percentage of these applications and stores will, however, continue to survive, and these should be migrated to the enterprise IT environment. This means that Enterprise 2.0 can be used not only to rapidly build short-term solutions, but also for prototype and incubator projects that may eventually evolve to enterprise applications.

The Seven Components of Enterprise 2.0 for Business Intelligence

The seven main components of Enterprise 2.0 that are relevant to business intelligence are:

  1. Information Collaboration: Provides new approaches for enterprise users to create and collaborate about information and business intelligence. Examples here include blogging, wikis, tagging, and social networking.
  2. Information Exploration and Analysis: Employs technologies such as federated queries, enterprise search, and content analytics to explore and analyze unstructured and semi-structured business content, including that produced by the information collaboration component.
  3. Information Integration: Extends traditional enterprise data capture and transformation technologies with the ability to process unstructured and semi-structured business content, including that produced by the information collaboration component.
  4. Information Syndication and Delivery: Uses syndication protocols (RSS and ATOM, for example), syndication servers, and data mashups to publish and deliver all types of structured information and unstructured business content to enterprise applications and users.
  5. User Interface: Includes technologies such as widgets, user interface mashups, AJAX, Adobe Flex and Flash, and scripting languages to create a richer, and more usable, business user Web interface to enterprise systems.
  6. Web-Oriented Architecture: A web-oriented architecture (WOA) allows organizations to rapidly build and deploy web-based software platforms and applications for use both inside the enterprise and for software-as-a-service solutions.
  7. Open Source Solutions: Provide traditional and commercial open source products for supporting all of the components of an Enterprise 2.0 environment. 

As already mentioned, each of these components will be discussed in detail in subsequent articles in this series.

What Are the BI Vendors Doing?

Enterprise 2.0 approaches have started to gain momentum outside of the business intelligence environment, but BI vendors have been slow to consider, or adopt, new Web 2.0 technologies. This has opened up an opportunity for smaller vendors outside of the traditional BI marketplace to compete with established BI vendors for a slice of the Enterprise 2.0 BI environment. These new vendors will be able to move quickly into the BI marketplace with lower cost and more usable solutions that may not have the functionality of the big BI platforms, but nevertheless will be attractive for addressing certain types of business problems. Meanwhile, the large BI platform vendors will find it difficult to move rapidly to compete because of their poorly integrated and older product architectures. It will be interesting to see how this battle will emerge over the next two to three years.

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