The problem with BI

BI is back in the news and for all the wrong reasons. There is another way.

Business Intelligence was a very big deal back in the 90's...and then somewhere around the mid-00's it went off the radar. Now it seems I can't open my RSS reader without someone opining on the topic. The latest I saw comes from Ann All who talks about Creating a Business Intelligence Culture. Here analysis is clear and well rounded but fundamentally flawed. She says:

The conventional wisdom: Companies are limiting the potential usefulness of BI by making it available only to specialists, who create reports from centralized data and make those reports available only to select decision makers.

Not everyone agrees with this, of course. In 2009 I interviewed Nigel Pendse, a principal with OLAP Solutions who had just authored that year's version of the BI Survey. (The annual report, now called the BI Verdict, is produced by the Business Application Research Center.) He told me vendors were pushing the idea of so-called pervasive BI simply to sell more software licenses.

She then goes on to point out that case studies show that tangible results are possible when more people are brought into the BI fold. She then goes on to argue that the adoption problem is one of culture where for too long, IT has held the access reigns.  Pulling all those arguments together, she uses an IDC analysis that predictably talks about a methodology for getting everyone involved. All of these are great points and may well be right for many businesses. But then consider what's happening with SAP BI. From the pen of Courtney Bjorlin of ASUGNews: Waiting on SAP, User Communities Fix SAP BusinessObjects Browser Woes. In this piece Ms Bjorlin talks to the angst among users who cannot use SAP BI on IE9 or Safari and questions why this might be:

“SAP and Microsoft have supposedly been partners for 15 or 20 years,” [Hayden] Gill says. “In my opinion, more value could have been delivered from this partnership during the 12 months that IE9 was being developed. SAP could have then had a Service Pack ready to go within three months of the release of IE9.”

And Marks argues that the “release” issue goes beyond browsers. His organization has typically had trouble finding out from SAP when the latest versions of Office are going to be supported.

In that same vein, even with SAP’s push on mobile, Marks says it’s been challenging to figure out when SAP will support Apple’s new iOS 5 platform. Users have asked whether they should update their iPads and iPhones, but he doesn’t know what to tell them –he wants to make certain that their software still works. SAP says Explorer Mobile is supported on iOS 5, and BI 4 will be in Q1 of 2012 via Feature Pack 3.

Fun stuff unless you're a) an SAP customer or b) an SAP developer on the BI team. And if you think that's bad then please look at the many questions raised by Vijay Vijayasankar in regard to BI and SAP HANA. A slew of problems await SAP customers and SIs which will suck millions of dollars out of IT budgets. Assuming of course there is no infighting about whose budget is impacted in the first place.

Taken together, these pieces set up the basis for an alternative approach. I pointed out to ASUGNews that the fundamental problem for SAP users is that their solutions were not built for the web. They're always backfilling and that leads to the kinds of problem customers are experiencing.

I believe that the solution to all these issues is much, much simpler than anything the consulting side or developer side are imagining.

When I look at the new breed of modern business solutions developed for the web, I see that they take a fundamentally different approach. Instead of concentrating on the transaction and then back filling to BI, they start with the notion that people need information that they can easily manipulate.

At yesterday's Workday 15 briefing, there was much to admire in the way managers can use data for talent management purposes. It was all easy, natural and logical. In other words, this is BI not for manipulation per se but for decision making. That was always the primary goal of BI but which seems somewhat lost in the technology problems we see in large organizations. The fundamental difference then is that BI as Workday and others imagine it is 'just there' and available to anyone with the appropriate permissions. When something of this kind exists naturally then the arguments set out by Ann All evaporate. Not because they are providing something new or novel - though that counts - but because it is something that is naturally pushed to you as part of your workflow. It is by embedding analytics as part of the flow of things that people deal with that vendors like Workday overcome the problems with which the incumbent vendors wrestle. It really is THAT simple.

Have the Workdays of this world got it all right? Of course not. There is much to come and they face important technology hurdles of their own. But the approach, which is counterintuitive to the way business software was always developed, is bang on the money. What's more, because Workday (in this argument but I can count others) is also developing natively for mobile, its ability to reach deep into the business comes as standard. Can SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Infor...(name your favorite vendor here) say the same? Yes - but only if you, as a buyer, are prepared to do as Pendse says and fork over for more licenses and...maintenance.

Which do you prefer? Something you get as part of what you do or a running battle with IT and the organization over a bolt on?