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Operational BI for the masses

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Comment I'm always more interested in failure stories than success stories, because you learn more from failure than you do from success. If you're successful, you might just have been lucky. But there's no real incentive to think about any issues and the next person to try could fail. However, failure often highlights bigger issues than just the technical quality of your tools - it's unusual to start a project with tools that are manifestly incapable of doing the job.

Nowhere is failure more likely than in BI (Business Intelligence). How many projects start off promising to bring decision support to the masses but end up with a lot of unused licenses and a few power users using decision support for a few high-profile projects? Sure, the power users may do good work but the masses make decisions too and projects are typically predicated on helping everyone to make better decisions.

So, I'm rather attracted to Information Builder's view that getting operational BI out to the masses should be the focus of attention – the power users can probably look after themselves once the technology is available.

As Calum Nobles, technical drector for EMEA at Information Builders, says of his peers: “They're still talking about executives, planners, big power users... The bit they miss out is getting the plan executed [throughout the company] and that is what operational BI is all about, giving the operational users the measures, the KPIs [Key Performance indicators] they stand or fall by”.

Shiny toy

In other words, this means empowering the operational users at the sharp end, giving them enough information to make the right decisions. Of course, this has implications for company culture, as it implies a mature, metrics-focused organisation that can handle disruptive technology projects (those that can change the way the company works) and one that also prizes information transparency above secrecy. Without executive sponsorship from someone with a vision and the authority to back it, the next shiny toy that comes down the line may marginalise such initiatives.

This insight will probably appear in the Operational BI Best Practice guides that Information Builders is working on – which should be available from its website soon. These should be worth reading – so long as readers, as always when reading vendor advice, keep their critical faculties awake - because Information Builders claims to be one of the few vendors that can cite customer examples of mass BI adoption. For example, Monaris, Canada's leading merchant payment processing company, has 300,000 business customers doing BI on credit card transactions and keeping track of sales trends.

A new example of the technology Information Builders uses to enable its Operational BI vision is the. iWay Enterprise Index. This uses the iWay Adaptive Framework, with over 280 integration adaptors, to convert raw information, in ERP systems, say, on the company Intranet into XML, which is then fed into the Google Search Appliance (GSA).

The GSA wouldn't normally find this information, because it only searches hyperlinks on web pages and not all your information is on web pages. At the same time, the iWay Enterprise Index shouldn't compromise performance or security because information is intelligently “pushed” towards the GSA.

Admittedly, this implies that measure of systems design is needed, together with properly thought-through company security policies). What the end users see, of course, is a familiar Google search interface to all the documents in the company that they're allowed to see – all the information they might want to base decisions on.

This all sounds useful, although we suspect that Information Builders may soon see competition from the commoditised BI provided by Microsoft's recently released SQLServer 2005, and possibly even in larger companies (although Information Builders' proven cross-platform abilities and scalability may well give it an edge here).

According to Nobles, the essence of operational BI is that when we retain manual processes in our increasingly automated systems, they're often there because we want human intelligence to be applied at that point. This implies a real need for perational BI; that is, decision support which enables tight coupling between business workflow metrics and any decisions being taken. ®

David Norfolk is the author of IT Governance, published by Thorogood. More details here.

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