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BI continues to go casual

Business Objects completes its integration of Crystal Decisions and becomes the latest vendor to unveil integration with Microsoft to foster adoption by the "casual user."

Talk to any major business intelligence (BI) vendor these days and there's one person they're clearly targeting -- the casual users of their technologies.

Richard Burnette is not one of those users, but he can see the attraction. The director of student information management for Florida State University in Tallahassee, Burnette is continually looking for ways to disseminate the vast amounts of student data available to administrators at the school.

"I speak 'data' and most people don't," Burnette said. "In general, it's harder to disseminate that information to a broad population because they simply cringe at the thought of anything data related."

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Yet, put that data into an easy-to-read report, accessible via an application they're comfortable with, say Microsoft Outlook or PowerPoint, and it becomes something they'll work with. That's what has Burnette interested in the latest release from Paris-based Business Objects SA. BusinessObjects XI is just the latest release from a BI vendor looking to tap the wider market of casual business users through Microsoft integration. Last month, Actuate announced enhanced integration with Microsoft Excel. Cognos added integration and usability enhancements in June and Information Builders unveiled its own tool designed for casual users in April.

"We need to embrace where they are, whether it's on or Microsoft Office, rather than expect them to come to the BI platform," said Lance Walter, vice president of corporate marketing for Business Objects.

The XI release has several usability enhancements aimed at this goal. Reports can be read directly within PowerPoint and users can drill down within the PowerPoint application if they need more information without reporting back to the BI tool to perform their analysis. The same is true for other Microsoft Office applications.

Additionally, the tool allows users to engage in discussions and analysis alongside scorecards and reports. For example, if users have a question, they can ask it and have it answered in the report or dashboard and subsequent users would have access to that information. Those discussions happen today, but are generally done on closed-loop e-mails, Walter said.

A BI encyclopedia provides users with access to complicated business terms to speed adoption of the tools. While Business Objects includes some predefined terms, it is up to individual customers to determine and load their own definitions.

"Usually everybody assumes they know what a word means in their business, when they often don't," said Mike Schiff, vice president of data warehousing and BI with Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis. "[I'm all for] anything that can document it. The small investment to populate it is insignificant compared to the payback."

Anything that helps with adoption is welcome at Florida State University as well, where Burnette admits he has had to act as a Southern evangelist for BI much of the time. Florida State runs on Business Objects version 6.1, but is considering the XI upgrade.

"I think we would have more people seeing [the data], but more importantly, I would have more people who would see the data, understand our position and want to learn more about how they can use similar reports," Burnette said. "We're trying to replace seat-of-the-pants analogies with Business Objects decision making."

The release also completes Business Objects integration of Crystal Decisions, which it acquired in December 2003.

"I think the biggest story here is they're sticking to the road map," Schiff said. "Everybody is going to integrate with Microsoft, including Microsoft itself. [Business Objects] had the guts to publish a road map on their site and so far they are sticking to it. And I think that's a positive sign."

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