Interview: IBM Cognos chief Rob Ashe

Rob Ashe, general manager of IBM's business intelligence and performance management unit, has had a busy year. He sold his company, Cognos, to IBM for $5 billion and has stayed on as a member of IBM's leadership team.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Rob Ashe, general manager of IBM's business intelligence and performance management unit, has had a busy year. He sold his company, Cognos, to IBM for $5 billion and has stayed on as a member of IBM's leadership team.

Ashe's role day to day hasn't changed too much. He still runs Cognos, but has ditched a few CEO headaches.

Ashe (right) says not a lot has changed except for he doesn't have "the same investor, board and compliance duties as before." Not that Ashe is crying about it. The time spent on those public company chores has been replaced by "strategizing about how to integrate this business and meeting with customers."

Here's a look at some of the highlights of my conversation with Ashe:

On the BI landscape:

Ashe noted that the BI market has been consolidated rapidly. SAP bought Business Objects, Oracle picked up Hyperion and IBM acquired Cognos. "The consolidation we have seen is a manifestation of the importance of BI to companies both large and small," says Ashe. The rub: Customers are "expecting more from vendors in this space." Ashe wouldn't discuss what other BI players (think Informatica) may be acquired, but did note that it's difficult to see a big consolidation round given many of the large players have already been gobbled up. "There are fewer targets, but I wouldn't say the consolidation is over," said Ashe.

On the interplay between ERP transaction systems and BI:

Ashe said part of the reason the industry grew up so quickly was that customers were looking to BI applications to squeeze returns out of ERP systems. Today, it's clear that ERP systems are about automating transactions, but BI is the real differentiator because it optimizes the business. That realization is one reason why Oracle and SAP bought BI companies.

On IBM's plans for Cognos:

IBM is hoping to position itself as the independent BI player. "There's a shift in the transaction software (ERP) and it's a slower growth market now," explained Ashe. "Customers know ERP gets them automation and they need to invest in BI. The difference between IBM versus Oracle and SAP is the independence from those transaction systems. We're focused on the data instead of the transaction system."

Not that IBM doesn't have its own stack to pitch. Ashe said IBM's approach to BI is to take Cognos and integrate it into the so-called information life cycle. In other words, IBM will take Cognos and layer its performance management software on top of its information server, data quality tools, storage and data warehousing applications. "They (SAP and Oracle) are selling transaction environment. We're selling data and information management independent of transaction."

On the intersection between software as a service (SaaS) and business intelligence:

Ashe said Cognos is a player in the SaaS market, but on the back end. SaaS vendors such as Salesforce.com partner with Cognos to use its software to dish out data and BI to their customers. Would Cognos go SaaS at some point? Ashe wasn't so sure. He said:

BI doesn't lend itself to SaaS. Every company is different because even if transaction systems are the same the decision making process is different. Unlike Netsuite or a CRM application where everyone does the same basic things, BI uses a different model every company. The one to many model doesn't work. That being said there are other aspects of SaaS that make sense for BI. These SaaS vendors accumulate data. We have 30 OEMs that use SaaS offerings to share to reflect data back to customer.

BI isn't plumbing. Key to making SaaS work is the multitenant environment. Our product can use in multitenant environment so you can apply business intelligence. We participate in the SaaS market place from the dashboarding side.

When asked whether BI would evolve to the point where it could be a SaaS applications, Ashe noted that it may be possible with IBM and its business process outsourcing business. "We can offer BI as a hosted service," said Ashe. "There are a lot of things we can do now that we never could before."

On enterprise demand:

"We're seeing good demand at the enterprise," said Ashe. "Most enterprises have performance management already, but are looking for more centralized capability to get a single strategic view of data." Ashe noted that Cognos is seeing "good traction" among the mid-tier companies. He also noted that emerging market demand is promising. "IBM is giving us access to places like Brazil, Russia, India and China," said Ashe. "(The merger) has given us fast forwarded us 5 to 10 years."

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