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Operational business intelligence making its way in the enterprise

Operational business intelligence (BI) promises to extend BI capabilities throughout an organization. A recent report suggests more companies are buying in.

For years, business intelligence (BI) vendors have been preaching the need to extend BI to the wider enterprise. The user community finally seems to be listening.

According to a report from San Mateo, Calif.-based Ventana Research Inc., more than two-thirds of organizations it polled are using or have taken initial steps to deploy operational BI. The report's author, Ventana's David Stodder, said companies are looking to operational BI to gain a better view of their customers, improve day-to-day decision-making and, ultimately, increase efficiency.

The task is not an easy one, however, requiring more than just replication of existing BI capabilities throughout an organization, an accompanying report said.

Of the 314 organizations Ventana surveyed, 68% report that they have already deployed operational BI in some manner or have at least begun a deployment project. Nearly two-thirds, 66%, said extending BI capabilities to operational-level workers is "very important," while another 30% judged it "somewhat important."

The report found that 30% of companies surveyed reached the highest level of operational BI maturity. "[Those companies] see operational BI as a key means of enabling front-line workers and operational managers to spend less time in struggling to locate and access information and more on activities that benefit the business, such as improving efficiency and customer service," the report said.

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The other benefits of operational BI seemed pretty clear: 53% cited reduced costs as an important benefit of operational BI, and 46% said they believe it will give them a differentiated advantage over competitors.

Most companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to operational BI, however, first deploying it to midlevel managers before rolling it out to lower-level employees.

"Front-line workers are definitely a target for operational business intelligence," Stodder said, "but the deployment plans are a little bit slower to those people."

The new emphasis on operational BI offers vendors an opportunity to cash in, as there are few operational-level tools and applications currently on the market. "[Companies want] information to support daily decisions, whereas most business intelligence is for larger analysis," Stodder said. "There really haven't been business intelligence systems that have been able to do that."

Operational BI poses challenges

Traditional BI is largely the domain of executives and analysts who use it to make sense of a company's ever-increasing volume of data and to gain a comprehensive view of the business. The goal of operational BI, Stodder said, is to get the right information into the right hands at the right time, no matter where in the corporate hierarchy a worker resides. The easier it is for a call-center representative to access relevant, up-to-date customer information, for example, the better customer service that rep will be able to provide.

Indeed, customer service is a major driver for operational BI, Stodder said, as are companies in the financial services sector, which deal daily with time-sensitive, critical data.

"To get a single view of a customer," he said, "that's going to be particularly important in financial services."

For operational BI to be effective, though, data must be updated daily, and in some cases even hourly, according to Stodder. Weekly and sometimes monthly updates have generally sufficed for traditional BI. Customer information that is weeks old and doesn't include recent transactions, for instance, is useless to a customer service rep trying to resolve an issue.

"To produce data at that rate is a big change and requires a lot of thinking," Stodder said.

Operational BI systems also must draw on data from more diverse sources than traditional BI systems. Data stored in traditional BI hubs like data warehouses and data marts is still important, he said, but frontline workers also need access to data stored in spreadsheets, email and other sources.

Figuring out how to access diverse data sources while keeping data timely is going to be a challenge. "Most business intelligence systems have been [developed] around a very defined user community," Stodder said, "and the data sources they're drawing on are usually limited."

Steps for operational BI success

For a successful operational BI deployment, Stodder suggests taking a centralized, rather than departmental, approach. That will enable companies to "take advantage of advances in information management to provide enterprise metadata integration, data quality, master data management and performance workload management, not to mention enterprise security," the report says. The survey found that 70% of companies have deployed or are planning to deploy via a centralized approach.

Another important factor is management buy-in. Stodder said that IT too often relies on the "if you build it, they will come" approach to operational BI deployments but instead should work with management to ensure that the BI capabilities rolled out to operational-level workers actually reflect the data they need.

"IT and CIOs are playing a big role in terms of being the executive sponsors [of operational BI]," Stodder said. "I don't think it's going to be successful unless it can get the business-side execs working with IT," he added.

Stodder emphasized that, despite all the fancy bells and whistles sometimes associated with BI, effective reporting is still the key to success -- for both traditional and operational BI -- and should be a top priority when developing an operational-level system. After all, a BI system is only as good as the reports it produces.

"As operational business intelligence workers are introduced to this technology they've never really had before," Stodder said, "it's going to be the reporting that's the first thing that they look at."

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