IF THERE is one theme that sums up the way business intelligence is going, it is ‘agility'. At least, that is the perfectly sensible conclusion of a new report from Forrester Research (Trends 2011 And Beyond: Business Intelligence, March 2011). So why then do so many managers, strategists and project leaders in organisations still have to wait for the information they need to make important decisions or prepare for meetings?
They submit a request then take their place in line while dedicated teams of ‘management information' specialists in the IT department draw down the required statistics, perform some elaborate analysis and put it all together in a special report using agreed templates. In an advanced information age, powered by unprecedented search, access and graphical presentation capabilities, this seems ludicrous.
Fortunately, there are three driving forces that are propelling 'agile BI' up the agenda, above and beyond the pure need for quick-and-easy data access.
The user experience
In their personal lives, business users can call up just about any information they need to make highly informed and targeted decisions, because it is all at their fingertips thanks to the internet. Yet, in their working lives, these same users could be forgiven for concluding that it is easier to find out how a rival business is doing than to establish what is happening in their own company.
Part of the problem has been cultural: organisations have been wary of allowing easy access to potentially sensitive business data in case it falls into the wrong hands. Yet the practical restrictions have been even greater: delivering accurate, meaningful business performance information often involves taking data from multiple, often incompatible systems. The data then needs to be treated to remove duplication and ensure high quality and reliability before being presented in a format that a business user can understand. Even if tools existed to help, the underlying infrastructure holds companies back.
On-the-fly decision making
In a fast-paced and highly competitive business environment, not only do business users need rapid access to critical, decision-supporting information, the parameters of what they are able to access must be very broad.
They need to be able to search and find whatever answers they need on the fly, much as they would do in their personal lives. As Forrester notes, the sales executive sitting in front of a client might not know until right at that moment which products they are most likely to be interested in. An independent financial advisor, for example, will benefit from maximum flexibility if able to present all the options, related forecasts and impacts on the portfolio of investments to a client during an account review meeting.
Dynamic situations demand appropriate information access and reporting capabilities, which in turn rely on agile IT infrastructures that can pull high-quality data together instantaneously in response to a user's search. Often, the answer to one query will trigger a user's appetite for additional information; a requirement they might not have been able to predict at the outset.
The potential benefits of a more responsive and agile information environment are better, faster decisions; increased productivity; improved customer service; and reduced workload for the management information team, which no longer has to collate and feed content to the business because users are able to serve themselves.
Since business users' technical skills vary enormously, these self-service facilities need to be highly intuitive and easy to use so that individuals can quickly and reliably find the information they need with complete confidence that the content is reliable and that they are reading it correctly.
The prevalence of the internet and growing flexibility in remote and mobile data access is a significant driver of dynamic, real-time information provision, not only because it is more possible than ever before but also because the proliferation of sophisticated mobile business 'apps' is fuelling high levels of user expectation.
If smartphones whetted users' appetites for instant information access on the go, tablet computers such as the iPad have multiplied that demand at least three-fold because of their bigger screens and fuller features. Being less cumbersome and more quickly powered up and connected than a laptop, tablet computers offer mobile executives and field personnel access to all of the same resources they would normally find on a PC, without the user even needing to sit down.
From the warehouse or supermarket aisle, managers can search stock, pricing and sales information to make on-the-spot decisions, while marketing and sales staff manning an exhibition stand can instantly tailor their spiel to each prospective customer they speak to, calling up the relevant supporting information as dictated by each situation.
Business intelligence is no longer a matter of statistics and financial data, it is meaningful information in the context of other applications: an enabler of advanced customer relationship management, resource planning and just-in-time manufacturing.
The sheer thirst for information and its multiple different uses, both internally and along the supply chain, is leading to advanced business intelligence capabilities increasingly being embedded in other applications to add value to them.
For the end user, then, business intelligence is becoming seamless. Advertisers on Facebook report that they love using the site because of the rich, value-added information they receive about user demographics, which allows them to maximise their marketing spend. Services such as this show them what is – or ought to be – possible.
The reality for most organisations today, however, is that much of their information asset base remains locked down, limiting its value. Take the manufacturing industry as just one example. Companies here have vast archives of historic data that they could leverage in new projects or share with affiliated companies, shortening the production cycle and enhancing speed to market (if only they could free the data so that it can be accessed more flexibly and dynamically by those who need it).
Across the public sector, meanwhile, organisations are actively seeking to achieve similar efficiencies as they strive to meet government targets by pooling resources and reducing repetition. Again, this requires the liberation of vast silos of data so that it can be shared more readily and dynamically with other departments and authorities across the country.
The ultimate purpose of that intelligence might be undefined, or as-yet unknown, however. It is this that is pushing companies to extend more dynamic business intelligence and information delivery capabilities to users. The more questions users find they can answer, the more questions they ask. The only way in which companies can hope to satisfy their demand is to engrain business intelligence into their culture, into the fabric of their organisations, in much the same way that internet search and related behaviour is already built into consumers' everyday lives.
Nobby Akiha is a senior vice-president at Actuate.
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