Who cares about business intelligence?

Who cares about business intelligence?

Summary: Analytical software for tracking business performance may not be the most exciting area of IT but it's an increasingly vital one, says the chief technology officer of Hyperion

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TOPICS: Networking
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Business intelligence, two words that together promote instant narcolepsy in technology professionals everywhere. But things may be about to get interesting.

The staid and perfunctory applications that allow companies to closely monitor their financial and logistical performance have undergone a renaissance of late, thanks in part to the creative accounting of several executives at Enron. The US legislation that resulted from that accounting scandal, such as Sarbanes Oxley, has forced chief executives everywhere to have a much more transparent view of their firm's financial dealings.

The best tools for improving financial insights are analytics and reporting software from companies such as Business Objects, Hyperion and Information Builders. But the consolidation pressure affecting much of the software industry is also being felt by these BI providers as they attempt to position themselves at the top of the tree when it comes to catering for all the needs of enterprise customers. While there is still a lot of consolidation to be done — analyst Gartner claims some firms may have up to 23 different BI tools deployed across the organisation — no one firm has emerged as the BI equivalent of Microsoft.

Hyperion, ranked number four in the BI market by IDC, would like the honour but has some work to do compared to Business Objects, say analysts. But Hyperion has a cunning plan to get ahead — change the rules of the game. Rather than battle it out in the business intelligence space, Hyperion is positioning itself as the leader in the different, if adjacent, field of Business Performance Management. It claims to be more focused on the high-level strategic planning than most of the competition — an area which it claims is much easier for chief executives to visualise the importance of compared to the more analytical vision for mainstream BI.

ZDNet UK caught up with Hyperion's veteran chief technology officer John Kopcke to discuss his take on why BI is back in vogue and why companies should care.

Q: Why is there so much momentum around business intelligence tools at the moment — is it purely down to companies having to comply with stricter legislation around accounting and operations?
Q: I have actually been in this space for 28 years. There are still a lot of companies in this space and it seems to be getting the biggest momentum it has ever had now. What makes that interesting is that if you take any other segment of software such as databases or office products that have been around for roughly the same amount of time, they went through the big momentum and consolidation several years ago. Look how many database products there are today — not very many.

It is kind of interesting to ask why did it take so long for BI to catch up and why now? My personal perception is that there were a set of things that had to happen before this could take place. We have had regulatory issues in the past and economic crises, but what was missing was all the infrastructure that is now in place; not everyone had a PC on their desk to access a BI application. What you also found in the eighties was you spent a lot of time trying to find the data and when you did eventually find it, it didn't make sense. You also had a lot of infrastructure worries - those guys over there have a Vax, those guys have an ICL and so at the end of the day you actually spent very little time doing things from a decision support or business intelligence perspective.

Then the nineties brought us the big ERP and data warehouse implementations and then the final technological advancement arrived in the form of the Internet; we can now pretty much reach anybody anywhere and the data resources and the transactional systems mean that we can now spend most of our time on business intelligence activity.

Fair enough — but is there something else that has helped to catalyse the uptake of BI in the last couple of years?
If you add economic pressure to this model then acceleration in BI starts to make sense. It has always been the case with our products that when companies are making money hand over fist and you think you're brilliant then you don't really focus on how to improve performance. When reality sets in, combined with regulatory pressures, then you have got the alignment of the stars which says this is really a brilliant time to be in this space.

So we've got the backdrop to why companies could to BI but what is actually motivating companies to invest in your technology specifically?
Ever since the 1970s we have focused on the word insight — business intelligence gives you insight into your business. Quite clearly if you don't have insight into your business then you are dead from the start. But once you do have insight — what do you do with it? From our perspective, the next thing you do with it is to drive performance and that means looking at the plans your company is actually executing. If I am looking at the performance of a company or of a football team, I can say well the athletes are fine, their training is fine but they are making bad plays. There a better plays given this talent that you should switch to. So Hyperion brings planning software into the mix.

What are we talking about here in terms of actual software tools?
The most comprehensive one is the concept of planning. What are the actual financial and operational plans a company is putting in place. We also add another layer in, focused on financial consolidation and statutory recording because if you're a business today then you not only have to meet the all the needs of your business but also the needs of regulatory agencies and governments. Sometimes you find that things that look good from a management reporting perspective don't actually look so good from a regulatory perspective. This has been some of the downfall and why Sarbanes Oxley has emerged. It's a case of "Yeah, you look really good from a management reporting perspective but from a risk point of view, you are a very shaky business."

Doesn't the planning side of things require a lot of consulting work to be done - well beyond just supplying software?
Absolutely, but although planning and consolidation is fairly complicated, it is something that companies have been doing years and the financial planning in particular that a bank does isn't much different from the planning that a manufacturer does. If you are a CFO then you can pretty much be a CFO at any company you want to be. It is actually fairly easy to deliver a relatively packaged application but that said there is still an implementation phase where you have to tailor that application to the needs of that business.

Topic: Networking

Andrew Donoghue

About Andrew Donoghue

"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism."

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Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journalist with over ten years on leading titles such as Computing, SC Magazine, BusinessGreen and ZDNet.co.uk.

Specialising in sustainable IT and technology in the developing world, he has reported and volunteered on African aid projects, as well as working with charitable organisations such as the UN Foundation and Computer Aid.

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