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Collaboration software could unlock business intelligence's full potential

Collaboration software and business intelligence applications could be on a collision course as organizations look for new and easier ways to share data.

From Facebook to Twitter, social networking has changed the way people communicate in their private lives. And with the continued adoption of collaboration software in the enterprise, it is starting to do the same in their professional lives, letting workers share documents and brainstorm new ideas.

The next frontier for collaboration software could be its convergence with business intelligence (BI) applications. Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis, vendors and industry analysts agree, have the potential to dramatically expand the reach and effectiveness of BI and data analytics throughout the enterprise.

Technical challenges lie ahead, but so do potential benefits, such as giving workers the ability to easily share and interact with BI reports and analytics. Vendors like SAP and Microsoft say embedding interactive business intelligence reports and ad hoc query capabilities into collaboration software will increase the speed of decision making and make the decision-making process itself more transparent. Employees will be able to share that information easily and quickly in different departments and divisions.

"We really think collaborative software can take business intelligence to the next level," said Mani Gill, vice president of SAP's Business Objects OnDemand division. SAP last week announced an OEM partnership with Jive Software in which Jive customers will have the ability to embed SAP Business Objects interactive reports, dashboards and search capabilities in their Jive collaboration portal.

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 With BI embedded in collaboration portals, the thinking goes, workers will no longer have to email reports to dozens of people and then spend hours or days aggregating and analyzing their responses, which come at different times and could be spread out among different branches of an email chain. With collaboration software, they can share the same report on a blog or in a wiki and instantly see their colleagues' input.

CSC, a consulting company based in Falls Church, Va., plans to embed Business Objects reports within its Jive collaboration portal to help its more than 90,000 employees across the globe share analytics and reports more easily, according to Claire Flanagan, the company's senior manager of knowledge management and enterprise social software.

"For a company like ourselves, as global and far-reaching as we are, we need [employee] groups within our company to be self-sufficient," Flanagan said. "And we need those group leaders to have information at their fingertips to make good decisions." Allowing employees to share reports and analytics via blogs and wikis, she said, is a way to do just that.

The ultimate goal, of course, is not just to facilitate the sharing of analytics and BI reports but to improve the business decisions made as a result. The convergence of BI and collaboration software can improve decision making by giving more power to the workers closest to the business problem, according to Guy Weismantel, director of business intelligence marketing at Microsoft.

"Customers are telling us they are trying to empower info workers to do more on their own," Weismantel said, in order to make decision-making not only faster but better. "Centrally made decisions are largely a thing of the past, and if we can push decision making down to a local level, it can increase the speed of decisions … but also its relevancy."

Another potential benefit of converging BI and collaboration tools is increased transparency, according to Rita Sallam, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.

"Right now, we don't really have a way to measure and link all the inputs that go into a decision. By combining BI and collaboration capabilities, we'll move a step in the right direction," Sallam explained. "Taking that a step further, you can identify successful decision makers and successful decision making patterns."

Information at employees' fingertips

While increased transparency would seem a benefit, it could also prove one of the hindrances to the convergence of BI and collaboration software at some organizations, Sallam said. Some organizations could resist creating yet another way to track behavior that might be drawn into litigation.

"I would expect from some executive decision-makers you could see some resistance to transparent decision making," she said. "Once you tie BI and collaboration together in an auditable form, does that then become discoverable?"

There could also be demographic challenges, Sallam said. The so-called Facebook generation -- workers in their 20s and early 30s – will probably embrace the use of collaboration software in general and for sharing BI reports and analytics specifically, but employees less versed in Web 2.0 tools may resist, she said.

The convergence of BI and collaboration software also creates security and privacy concerns. Decisions must be made around which data different employees are authorized to see. IT must put controls in place to enforce those rules.

"It's super easy to show the end-product, but we still have to adhere to our customer's standards," Weismantel said, noting that IT monitoring functionality is already built-in to SharePoint Server, which he said will play an important part in the company's upcoming Gemini and Kilimanjaro releases later next year.

With data access and IT controls in place, embedding BI capabilities into collaborative software actually can make IT's job easier, CSC's Flanagan said.

CSC employees have created more than 1,000 user groups on the Jive collaboration platform, she said. "As you can imagine, that would be very difficult for our IT department to pull reports for each group. The collaboration platform puts the information at [workers'] fingertips faster, whereas it may never happen otherwise."

Technical challenges remain

The convergence of BI and collaborative software promises to be a long and potentially complex process, however -- one that is just beginning, according to Sallam.

"There isn't really at this point an out-of-the-box decision environment that combines social software and BI so that people can collaborate in a group environment," she said in a recent interview. "If somebody wanted to deploy that application within their organization, they would really have to piece something together."

Most collaboration platforms have the "hooks" in place to connect to BI apps, Sallam said, but -- Jive and SAP's relationship notwithstanding -- there are few true partnerships between BI vendors and collaboration software makers at this point.

The good news is that many BI vendors – including Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, and even EMC and Google – have the pieces in place to create out-of-the-box BI/collaboration products, she said, but they still have a long way to go in terms of making the process seamless.

SAP and a number of other BI vendors, including SaaS BI provider PivotLink, have also made their applications available as widgets that can be added to third-party collaboration software, including SharePoint Server and iGoogle.

"The technological challenges remain," Microsoft's Weismantel said. The emergence of service-oriented architectures and Web services, which obviates the need for detailed hand-coding to connect applications and data, will help, "but there's a lot of work we have to do."

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