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Business intelligence software is supposed to help businesses access and analyze data and communicate analytics and metrics. I have witnessed improvements to BI software over the years, from mobile and collaboration to interactive discovery and visualization, and our Value Index for Business Intelligence finds a mature set of technology vendors and products. But even as these products mature in capabilities, the majority lack features that would make them easy to use. Our recent research on next-generation business intelligence found that usability is the most important evaluation criteria for BI technology, outpacing functionality (49%) and even manageability (47%). The pathetic state of dashboards and the stupidity of KPI illustrate some of the obvious ways the software needs to improve for businesses to gain the most value from it. We need smarter business intelligence, and that means not just more advanced sets of capabilities that are designed for the analysts, but software designed for those who need to use BI information.
Our research finds the need to collaborate and share (67%) and inform and deliver (61%) are in the top five evaluation categories for software. A few communication improvements, highlighted below, would help organizations better utilize analytics and BI information.
Personalized Notifications and Alerts
Everyone in business is busy. Managers and directors have little time to do analysis. Yet BI advancements in visual and data discovery are focused on analysts, and not aimed at the majority of those in business who need to be notified of issues critical to business processes for which they are responsible. We need to make it simpler to consume BI from any point of a presentation. Individuals should be able to review lists of critical metrics as easily as they can browse a directory of files, and based on access rights should be able to select and scope them to suit their areas of responsibility (geography/location, customer, products) and the time period needed for analysis. Users should be able to compare ranges across time and set thresholds that trigger a notification or alert delivered into email or directly to a mobile platform (smartphone or tablet).
This notion of personalized notifications is pretty simple, and our recent research on next-generation business intelligence found that alerts and notifications are the most important capabilities for mobile technology according to 42 percent of organizations. Business Intelligence software vendors must not just focus on providing charts to mobile technology but rather on providing better access to information, and should offer notifications of changes to the analytics and metrics that matter. Personalized notifications should be a self-service activity that does not require IT or analysts to get involved; the software should be usable and smart enough to perform this basic business function.
Text Presentation of Analytics
BI has focused on presenting tables of data and charts to visualize data. More advanced deployments blend in maps and location analytics, a feature whose value I have already espoused. But even with dashboards, individuals can find it challenging to look at four or more charts with no context in communication about them. Even as we try to make the presentation of charts through visualization fancier, the problem is that majority of business professionals are not trained to interpret charts and would rather read what is going on in their business just as they read the newspaper or digital forms of it on their tablet. We can read summary paragraphs about the news; business should be able to see similar communication about the analytics that matter to an individual’s role, yet today’s business intelligence software lacks any way of presenting data in readable text or their natural language. This needs to be part of business intelligence, and organizations need to voice their needs and ensure that software companies understand how this would help them use analytics.
Make Observations on Analytics
Analysts are responsible for conducting analysis, providing observations found in the analytics and communicating them to others in business. Despite the variety of business intelligence software available, the majority of analysts today place charts and graphs into a presentation using technology like Microsoft PowerPoint. Once a chart is placed into a presentation, analysts place observations as bullet points next to the chart, title the slide, and add summary points or actions in a text box at the bottom. They then repeat the process to create a collection of slides that are usually exported to Adobe Acrobat and emailed to others.
Now step back and ask yourself if your BI software supports those kinds of operations today. Does your dashboard of charts provide the ability to place text around it for communication? Can the text from an analyst be fixed and not change, but be commented on or collaborated on in a discussion forum? From my analysis of the majority of software providers, the answer is no. It is not clear why vendors fail to support the basic process of analysis, observation and notation on the analytics and metrics. You should be able to add a free-form text box to the left or right of a chart and add observations that can be fixed and placed into a dashboard.
These areas are just some examples of ways to improve business intelligence. I hope that BI software providers start to add more communication and collaboration capabilities that adapt to the way people work, rather than the current approach that forces people to spend more time in their products. As a customer, you should voice the needs you have to support your efforts today. For years, BI software providers have stated there was no demand for capabilities like collaborative and mobile to make things easier for business users, but my analysis indicates this was because they were getting feedback only from IT organizations and IT industry analysts who do not research or understand the way business professionals operate and how they want to become smarter in how they communicate and collaborate, including via mobile technology. Our benchmark research finds collaborative capabilities have been important for some time, and our latest research in 2012 finds them very important to 26 percent of organizations and important to another 41 percent. In addition, more than a third (38%) would like collaborative support as part of their business intelligence product, and almost a quarter (24%) has no preference in their approach. If the vendors do not add this capability, businesses will continue to use Microsoft Office (36%) or find a stand-alone collaboration tool (17%) to meet their need. The need for collaboration is very clear as it is the second-ranked priority (16%) we found in our technology innovation benchmark research, after analytics (39%).
Your BI software should support all business roles, not just analysts, though they do need smarter tools such as visual discovery. IT departments should examine why business still uses spreadsheets and presentation software instead of BI software. To get a shared enterprise approach to business intelligence, business must have software that supports the analytic and decision processes we have been successful with for decades, as well as what people need today. By addressing these needs we will also be more prepared for investments in big data, which our research finds are expected to improve communications and knowledge sharing. Our analysis finds the need for more social and collaborative BI features to help teams and support the business and is a key component of my colleagues business analytics research agenda. Assess what you are doing to optimize business intelligence software for business use and provide better communication and easier consumption of analytics and metrics. If you are not able to get what you need, maybe it is time to switch BI software providers to the ones that do provide what you need for business.
CEO & Chief Research Officer
At this year’s SAPPHIRE NOW conference (Twitter: #SAPPHIRENOW) SAP demonstrated its in-memory computing technology and applications. SAP’s High Performance Analytic Application (HANA), which I think of as a high-availability network appliance, is part of the technology industry movement to increase the performance and scalability across a range of applications, from analytics to transactions, to drive timely insights on data or real-time interactions across a business value chain that includes everyone from customers to suppliers. As part of the in-memory computing initiative, SAP demonstrated its in-memory database, which uses a columnar data store that employs technology SAP acquired with the Sybase IQ product. As I noted before the conference, in-memory technology is part of a major new focus for this global business applications company.
In a technology keynote, SAP CTO Dr. Vishal Sikka let the customers do the talking. More than a couple of dozen testimonials came from the likes of CIOs at Caterpillar, Colgate-Palmolive, Nestle, P&G and other global companies, all of whom said they have been implementing HANA not just to run faster and more cost-effectively but also to enable new levels of efficiency in business processes.
To make the case that you do not need a dedicated appliance like the hardware HP, IBM and Oracle sell, SAP cofounder Dr. Hasso Plattner demonstrated that HANA can operate on platforms as small as an Apple server or as scalable as a Dell PowerEdge R910 rack server. The company highlighted its partnership with Dell to further its message of interoperability.
SAP demonstrated many applications it has built on top of HANA, including strategic workforce planning, a dynamic cash flow management for supporting financial operations for managing cash and accounting operations across AR and AP, and a new available-to-promise (ATP) order-inquiry application that had many attentively watching. In addition, SAP showed a range of modeling and calculation operations that can be computed on the platform and that could be part of any planning process. It is building a new advanced planning optimization (APO) system for companies that have struggled with limitations of the existing SAP APO. Many of these applications were presented through Microsoft Excel to demonstrate the power of SAP HANA, though eventually they will be more formalized, like the applications SAP offers under its the business analytics umbrella for lines of business and vertical industries. SAP partners offered demonstrations, too, among them Centrica, showing smart-meter analytics, and Medidata, using HANA in a cloud edition for supporting clinical trials and analytics against patient and outcome data.
SAP NetWeaver BW will add support for SAP HANA in the fall with the NetWeaver service pack 7.5 and the SAP HANA service pack 3. HANA will be able to replace the existing database with in-memory computing, which will not just speed up performance but also reduce the cost of database maintenance and support. This new combination should dramatically increase the throughput of BI tools using SAP BW and help further the adoption of the recently released SAP Business Intelligence version 4 that my colleague assessed.
SAP is clearly in the big-data market, where a lot is going on now. A main focus has been on the open source application Hadoop. Commercialization of Hadoop by providers such as EMC and Cloudera illustrates that we are living in the era of large-scale data. IBM is focusing on the unification of Hadoop and large sets of data and shifting away from its acquired Netezza and IBM DB2. Meanwhile, Teradata is expanding its processing power with in-memory computing using solid state disk and the acquired Aster Data to help reach data across multiple platforms. Oracle is advancing its Exadata appliances using Sun hardware and storage with Oracle database technologies as part of its playbook. Part of the vision of HP’s new CEO, ex-SAP CEO Leo Apotheker, includes analytic database technology from newly acquired Vertica, but HP’s technology is yet to be proven to be scalable and ready to compete in this market though the company is promoting like it did with its predecessor product called HP Neoview. So this is a very busy market of technologies to address the need for faster computing of data to support business.
In order to compete successfully in this developing market, SAP must continue to focus on the business applications aspect of big data and in-memory computing. The company has been committing on-site resources for its customers to demonstrate HANA’s capabilities. SAP HANA will extend its Enterprise Information Management products to advance what’s possible in management of data across analytical processing and operational execution. SAP made it clear that HANA and the future integration with SAP NetWeaver BW are part of its new generation of applications and that the company is eager for competitive bake-offs on its reliability and scalability. SAP HANA is definitely something to examine if you are looking to gain significant throughput of your data and analytics for business for which our benchmark research finds to be in high demand by organizations across the globe. Let the games begin.
Mark Smith – CEO & Chief Research Officer