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Business intelligence vendors, BI buyers could do more with less

Business intelligence vendors and BI software buyers looking to expand the use of BI tools may want to start thinking more like Apple and focus on what business users really need.

What do the iPad and business intelligence (BI) tools have in common? Not as much as they should.

Apple has been getting a tremendous amount of free publicity and market buzz about the iPad, its new tablet computer. Although there’s debate as to whether the iPad will duplicate the success of the company’s iPods and iPhones, Apple clearly can be successful with consumer products that were initially targeted at “geeks” or technology-savvy early adopters.

Neither the iPod nor the iPhone created a new technology category. But Apple didn’t just “cross the chasm” with those devices – it flew right over the gap between early and mainstream adopters and wound up with runaway bestsellers. Prior to the iPod and iPhone, MP3 players and smartphones were niche technologies used primarily by people who liked to play with gadgets. After the Apple launches, everyone from preteens to seniors bought the products and began viewing them as indispensable.

BI tools currently are stuck in a kind of pre-Apple MP3 and smartphone limbo. Typically, they’re being used by the power-user early adopters and techies within organizations but not yet by their potential mass market, i.e., business managers and workers as part of pervasive BI deployments. There are two groups presenting barriers to the widespread adoption of BI software: business intelligence vendors and buyers.

The problem with business intelligence vendors

BI, data analytics and data visualization vendors might learn some lessons from Apple when it comes to their products. With each new software release, year after year, BI vendors add more and more features. The onslaught of new functionality is exacerbated by the many mergers and acquisitions taking place in the BI market, since the company doing the acquiring often “integrates” the other vendor’s product (or products) into its own BI suite.

Yet a typical business worker uses only a small percentage of the available features in BI software. The continuing addition of often unneeded capabilities results in much more complex products that require more and more BI training so that people can become proficient on them. Although you probably could find someone who wanted each of the new features in a particular software release, the cumulative outcome is too many features chasing a diminishing group of users who care about them.

By contrast, Apple’s products have succeeded not because the company added all of the features it could to them, but because it chose to include only a subset of new features that most consumers really wanted. Apple also ensured that its devices were easy to learn and use regardless of someone’s technical prowess. Surely, there must have been a temptation to add a slew of features that analysts and power users wanted to see, but staying true to the “more is less” mantra helped Apple make iPod and iPhone mainstream – and very cool.

BI software buyers vs. the (actual) users

But it isn’t just business intelligence vendors that are inhibiting BI tools from becoming pervasive within enterprises; it’s also the buyers and evaluators of the products. The purchasing process for BI software usually involves IT groups or BI teams working with power users on the business side to create evaluation and selection criteria. And the resulting lists of criteria often are laden with required features. In many cases, the philosophy of both IT workers and business power users is simple: the more features, the better. That mindset is reinforced by industry analysts who also evaluate BI tools based on feature lists. Best-in-class is usually awarded to the product with the most features.

The actual consumers of BI software – i.e., business users – are almost an afterthought. By the time they get involved, they’re often asked to evaluate vendors based on the selection criteria that IT and the power users created, rather than on what really matters to them.

As a result, many companies end up purchasing a large number of licenses for BI software that the intended users don’t use on a regular basis. The BI applications become expensive “shelfware,” and business users go back to their Excel spreadsheets.

Memo to business intelligence vendors and buyers: Stop the madness

BI vendors, and IT and BI groups creating software evaluation checklists, need to be more like Apple and think upfront about BI users. Less will indeed be more if BI vendors start offering tools that are easy to use and better match what the typical business worker needs – and if buyers start demanding such products.

It will be difficult for traditional BI vendors to get off the functionality treadmill. Newer competitors, such as the on-demand business intelligence vendors, may have a better opportunity to apply Apple’s “more is less” mantra to BI software. But if nothing changes, Excel will remain the BI tool of choice for the majority of business users.

Rick Sherman, Athena IT Solutions

About the author: Rick Sherman is the founder of Athena IT Solutions, a Stow, Mass.-based firm that provides data warehouse and business intelligence consulting, training and vendor services. In addition to having more than 20 years of experience in the IT business, Sherman is a published author of more than 50 articles, a frequent industry speaker, an Information Management Innovative Solution Awards judge and an expert contributor to both SearchBusinessAnalytics.com and SearchDataManagement.com. He can be found blogging at The Data Doghouse and can be reached at rsherman@athena-solutions.com.

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