Business intelligence: The next frontier

Business intelligence is arguably the most important enterprise application in your company. But questions abound: How can you get more workers using it?

Business intelligence is arguably the most important enterprise application in your company. But questions abound: How can you get more workers using it? What are the new frontiers? And how simple can you make it?

To address those questions we spoke with Don Campbell, vice president of product innovation and technology at Cognos, for some color on emerging trends. Campbell's job is to take the Cognos 8 platform--its latest iteration of its business intelligence software--and extend it into new areas and features. He visited me in my New York office. Here are a few emerging in business intelligence (BI) software from our discussion:

The consumerization of BI: Today the cutting edge technologies reside with consumers. From there, this technology filters into the enterprise. This fundamental shift means application vendors will have to give users what they want: Sophisticated applications in an easy-to-understand wrapper, says Campbell. "The technology at home is creeping into the enterprise," he says.

Search as the BI window: "At home we all Google to find information. At work we have no idea where things are," says Campbell. He has a valid point and that's why one of the reasons why Cognos has been hooking into search providers such as Google, Yahoo, Autonomy, Fast and IBM. Under this concept, BI data would surface through a simple text box. You type in third quarter revenue and you'd get a chart, just like Yahoo or Google gives you the weather. Search on "raincoats in Milan" and BI should return product specific sales by region via a simple search box.

The user interface: Today BI systems appeal to data junkies who love to track sales, charts and other corporate data in real time. The problem: There are only so many wonks to go around. Campbell says the goal is to create various interfaces into BI so usage will expand beyond just a few executives. "Simple will matter as BI moves out to more and more users," says Campbell. "The rich interface will matter to some users, but others will want something different."

As a result, employees will have different experiences with BI data. In the future, Campbell argues that BI won't be seen as an application as much as something that just runs in the background. To some folks, BI information will be churned out via a simple search result. Others may get more of a social networking experience.

Campbell was upbeat on the corporate rollout of Vista as a way to push out BI information. He has experimented with gadgets that deliver various charts on a drag and drop basis. In this view a Vista desktop could have widgets for traffic, weather and North American sales of high-end routers refreshing by the hour. "We want to get BI out to people without their awareness," says Campbell.

Mobile interfaces: According to Campbell, BI has to go mobile. He demonstrated a few mobile applications Cognos is kicking around in the lab. The general idea is to push key reports, say revenue by region, sales of a key product line and geographic breakdowns, to your BlackBerry. The schedule would be set by you and delivered in a way that won't hog your wireless bandwidth, says Campbell. In Campbell's demo, a report was shown in total on the phone's browser, but the manager can easily zoom into specific data and manipulate it.

Encryption is also pivotal. Campbell described a "lease key" that would make a device phone home at a set time period. If the device didn't touch base a report wouldn't be sent. These reports would also be able to be destroyed remotely in case a device was lost.

The next frontier on the mobile front is combining business intelligence with GPS data. "Location intelligence would give me important information based on who I am and where I am," says Campbell. "For instance, if I'm in New York at a meeting I'd get New York centric reports."

Campbell also outlines a few real-world examples:

  • A police officer could get reports based on where he is in a city. If a cop is in Park Slope, Brooklyn he could get a report for all outstanding warrants based on his location that minute.
  • An airport worker could get reports on baggage locations in real-time based on gate changes and other airport moving parts.
  • Managers could get reports on where equipment is located in their area at the time.

"These are not new ideas, but with devices today and GPS they are becoming real," says Campbell, who added that these location intelligence applications aren't found in BI suites today.

BI's architecture: Campbell says Cognos 8 ditched his company's legacy infrastructure and gave it a service oriented architecture. The benefits are clear: Cognos can tap into various systems--an important point given the company is agnostic when it comes to enterprise applications. Cognos can also use SOA to tack on new features such as the ones Campbell builds. "Our footprint is much smaller now," says Campbell.

Learning from the user: Campbell says the next challenge for BI tools is learning from users. Today, BI spits out information without much input from users. In the future, that will change. He foresees BI systems incorporating user tags and commentary. "The next generation of BI will be more comfortable understanding unstructured data," says Campbell. "Unstructured data will be as important as structured data."

In many respects, Campbell is getting at a few points noted by Trampoline Systems, which is taking a social networking approach to enterprise knowledge systems. Over time, I could see some of those aforementioned approaches (BI + social networking + search) merging together perhaps with a company like Autonomy.