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BI's founding father speaks: Q&A with Howard Dresner

In an interview, Howard Dresner -- who coined the term "business intelligence" -- discusses his take on the BI market and his recommendations for achieving BI success.

Howard Dresner invented the term "business intelligence" in 1989. In 1992, Dresner joined Gartner Inc., where he...

built up the analyst firm's BI practice and created and chaired the annual Gartner Business Intelligence Summit. In the fall of 2005, Dresner left Gartner to join Santa Clara, Calif.-based Hyperion, a BI and performance management vendor, as its chief strategy officer. sat down with Dresner at the recent Gartner BI Summit in Chicago, discussing his take on the BI market, his recommendations for achieving BI success and, given the success of the term "BI," the latest phrase he's coined.

Did you invent the term "business intelligence"?
Guilty. It's true. I'm the father of BI. Why did you feel the need for a new term? What's the difference between BI and analytics?
Fundamentally, I see analytics as simply applied business intelligence. Sometimes it's very simple, sometimes it's very sophisticated. But effectively, what you're doing is providing some level of analysis, typically within the context of an application.

My vision of business intelligence was to establish what I call information democracy -- getting information in the hands of all constituents. That's what made it really provocative back in the early 1990s. I said, basically, business intelligence is going to go from being in the hands of the few to the hands of the many. People started thinking "what if we did deliver this notion of insight to everybody, what would that do?" Some people view that as empowering, some people view that as frightening, but that's where we're heading. People need to have insight -- actionable insight -- now.

What I talk about today is literally aligning people and process with purpose. The next high ground is business performance management (BPM) [also called corporate performance management], which is what BI becomes when it grows up. Or, as I like to call it, BI with a purpose. Has BI evolved as you expected?

For more information about business intelligence and performance management

Read coverage of the keynote address at the 2006 Gartner BI summit

Check out our Special Report on BI

 No. A lot of good things have happened but we haven't made the progress that I would have hoped. The good news is that the technology has advanced tremendously. It's just so much more usable and so much more sophisticated -- all of the things you would hope. The current generation of products are much more evolved from where we were. And of course all of the infrastructure -- the hardware, the networks -- have just gotten much better from where we were 15 years ago. Then, a lot of this would have been fundamentally impossible. You couldn't have scaled BI to entire organizations. Today, technologically and architecturally, you can scale BI to every user constituent. That would not have been possible ten, even five years ago.

Culturally, there are still tremendous inhibitors. I've talked so much about BI competency centers over the last few years. But organizations are still fairly fragmented. They don't always view BI as strategic. BI implementations still tend to be deployed functionally or departmentally. Some organizations have approached BI strategically when it's driven by business management. But if you have IT try to drive it -- you'll fail. Are there practical ways for IT to communicate with business people about BI?
There needs to be a knowledge transfer between the two functions, hence the notion of a competency center. You take [IT and business people] out of their environment and you start getting them in an environment where they're now peers. Unless you can forge that sort of relationship between IT and the business, you never break the cycle. How can a company plan strategically for BI and ensure that they're making the right investments at the right time?
You need to organize for it. It's nice to have a competency center, but you also need to have a roadmap. You need to self assess and ask: where are we technologically? Where are we from a business perspective? Where are we culturally? Where are we politically and organizationally? And where do we want to be and what will be the steps to getting there?

You can have a roadmap for things like business performance management, but that doesn't mean you have to wait five or 10 years to get it. You can start delivering things more practically, near term. And eventually, you'll get to the ultimate end state, which actually, you never really get to. It's more of a journey, not a destination. You're never really done because organizations aren't static. But you have to start somewhere. Should companies strive for BI standardization? Should they try to get rid of all of their different tools?
They should. It's hard to do. But you can't deploy strategically with dozens of tools because different tools represent things in different ways. All the tools have a dictionary or semantic layer, and getting all of them to be in lockstep with each other would be near impossible. You need to get it down to a manageable few. You need to standardize. But once you standardize on a platform -- then the hard work begins. Everything else has to go. It's a long process. But when you succeed with standardizing and consolidating, in conjunction with a competency center, then good things can start happening. What are your recommendations for an IT group just starting to evaluate BI?
Go find a business buddy. Try to start understanding the priorities of the business and the mission of the business -- because this is about technology supporting business, not just implementing tools. Don't try to boil the ocean. Pick focused activities. You've got to do things in as manageable a scope as you possibly can. Implementing a competency center, platform standardization, and tool consolidation are all valuable things to do.

This is not an 18-month process. It's ongoing. You can start to build successes over time, but until you have really turned the tide -- it can be three to four years. This stuff will not happen overnight, because we've done so much silly stuff over the years that we have to compensate for. But, when you compare it to something like ERP, this is a cakewalk. But isn't it important to show proof of concepts early?
Always. You have to deliver value early and often. You always want to do things like prototyping and proof of concepts and getting stuff into the hands of the users as quickly as possible. You start building a constituency and you build support. You also get critical feedback. So, you engage with users, they turn into supporters, they're working with you, you're getting feedback, and you're refining what you're doing. But yes, you need to do prototyping and proof of concepts, and you need to deliver value in small chunks. That's why you really need to start focusing in on scope. Thank you for your time today. One final question -- have you invented any new terms lately? "Business intelligence" seemed to be a big hit.
People talk about CRM and CRM analytics, and how it gives them a 360 degree view of the customer. My question is how many degrees of my business is that? It's only a small percentage of the business. So, here's a new one: Business performance management is a 360 view of the business.

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