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Various research projects have shown that business intelligence (BI) continues to be one of the top investment priorities for CIOs. But what is changing is its shift in focus from complex tools for a few users to more flexible, affordable and accessible tools for a larger audience.

As such, BI is moving away from being an exclusive tool for power users, or "information producers", to empowering the "information consumers" in accessing, analysing, and sharing data.

There are a number of factors driving the need for more advanced business intelligence solutions which can offer faster and more accessible insight into business operations.

Firstly, the unprecedented data growth evident within every enterprise. Not only is the volume of data growing at an exponential rate, but the diversity of data is also increasing. Organisations are capturing and storing data from a multitude of sources, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems, and are also seeing a proliferation in unstructured formats such as text, images, voice and video.

Meanwhile, new technologies are being deployed such as radio frequency identification (RFID) which are generating still more data. Regulatory and compliance issues are also contributing to the amount of data that needs to be stored and analysed for accurate reporting. In short, data growth shows no signs of abating.

Secondly, increased collaboration is driving the need to make BI more accessible. Businesses are becoming highly collaborative, sharing their data and resources with external partners. This means there is a far more diverse range of data sources for all employees to consult when making business decisions.

These factors are made more complex by the shorter decision cycles that businesses have to respond to, which drives a requirement for more immediate insight into business performance. This means BI can no longer be confined to just the power users in an enterprise and must now be brought to a new and wider audience - the operational workers who can access and act upon business data from the desktop applications they are familiar with.

To date, the implementation of business intelligence has suffered from fragmentation and sprawl as a result of organisations deploying solutions on a tactical, departmental basis. The penetration rate for business intelligence is generally pegged at around 20 per cent or less of potential users. The main reason for this is that solutions have traditionally been complicated to use by anyone other than the power user.

However, the broader end user community has become more and more involved in data analysis through the use of basic analytic tools.

The most notable is Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet which continues to be the most popular application for working with data due to its familiar interface and ubiquitous presence on desktops. The downside to this has been the proliferation of multiple spreadsheets being used within an enterprise, all with their own version of "the truth".

In response to this, a new generation of BI products has emerged to address the issues of cost and complexity. Probably the most decisive mover in the market has been Microsoft, with its message of "BI for the masses".

Microsoft has capitalised on the opportunity presented by the dominance of Excel while addressing its shortcomings as a business intelligence tool. Its suite of business intelligence products not only includes Excel 2007 and Excel services (offering collaborative, security and versioning features) but also SQL Integration, analysis and reporting services and PerformancePoint Server 2007 - giving Microsoft a very comprehensive set of business intelligence technologies, from data integration to analysis and performance management.

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