The old grey matter test

Business intelligence (BI) needs to become more closely aligned with the broader goals of knowledge management (KM).

Business intelligence (BI) needs to become more closely aligned with the broader goals of knowledge management (KM).

Over time the IT industry has spawned a wide variety of discrete technology solutions. Each has been designated - at least for a time - as a separate market segment in its own right. During this grand age of integration and e-business, however, the usefulness of some distinctions is starting to wane. This leads to a form of crossover, or fusion where new ways of describing a more all-encompassing proposition become necessary. Such a situation has arisen around how business intelligence (BI) now needs to become more closely aligned with the broader goals of knowledge management (KM).

Business intelligence involves the analysis and reporting of largely numeric data, with tasks often performed online, and geared to performance and trend metrics. Yet BI can take many forms, and has already crossed over with other solutions, such as data warehousing and associated extraction techniques. So you can count things like data mining and decision support systems within the BI categorisation. In addition, BI tools are already presented as key elements of business portal projects. Portals become highly significant in this debate, where customised information and resources are pumped out to users.

Harder to define, and often diverse in practice, knowledge management has a much wider focus. Some people actually maintain that BI and KM are one and the same, and ultimately that argument will be proven true. Even so technology is only one part of KM, which is better seen as a set of practices that leads to a culture of information sharing. Inevitably this leads to the creation of flexible online communities, although physical meetings and the related personal interaction are also important here.

The goal of KM is to enhance the value of the intellectual capital within an organisation, a method based on the broad based development of information handling and sharing skills among individuals. Intellectual capital can be described as the potent corporate knowledge base, which must become active information to assist decision making and the execution of business goals. At its best KM blends numeric and other structured data, various forms of unstructured data, best practice methods and heuristics - where knowledge discovery is encouraged on an individual basis using a given method.

While the portal concept has been around for some time and can have multiple meanings, Hummingbird Communications - originally focused on host connectivity - is one vendor trying to define and deliver on the concept of the enterprise information portal (EIP). And its seems that Patricia Seybold, the respected US analyst who coined the term, is now moving on to define this phenomenon as simply information management.

While IBM has a similar solution seen as more geared towards the back-end, Hummingbird is focusing on the 'glue' that binds different content streams and applications together to be delivered via a single, personalised web interface, according to Hossan Abouzeid, senior vp sales and marketing at Hummingbird. And the company has included BI host access and KM functionality in its EIP offering, through acquiring the appropriate technology over the last year or so.

Abouzeid identifies several key components of the EIP. These include single logon, unified search capability, personalisation and application integration via the XML mark-up language. Collaboration technology is also available, with security an important issue, in particular when it comes to the web. Scaleability is crucial - with Abouzeid citing one example of 130,000 seats being catered for - and openness also being a crucial factor.

Abouzeid sees several IT start-ups focusing on the provision of the glue to make the portal idea a reality. Yet he argues that only a company of Hummingbird's size, with revenues of around $220m, is able to round off the value proposition. Plenty of larger companies have released portal solutions, with SAP being an example, which have not been so credible in the market, according to Abouzeid.

Hummingbird seems to be sticking to its pledge to keep the EIP open to other brands of software, with Abouzeid affirming that if a customer wanted to use the Cognos, or another BI supplier's tools, then they could be easily integrated. Groupware environments, like Lotus Domino and Microsoft Exchange, can also be covered, in terms of document management and the ability for full text search. In Hummingbird's case, the company can still exploit its pedigree in host connectivity, providing access to crucial legacy information.

The concept of unifying the capabilities of BI, KM, and other technologies, is rapidly being executed in practice by a range of IT companies. For instance, IBM business partner Comshare offers management planning and control (MPC) products for e-business. Nigel Youell, Comshare's marketing director, points out that the finance function is often pigeon holed as being solely about numbers, noting that organisations often deal with words and figures separately. He poses questions about the ease with which people's knowledge can be integrated with a budget plan, and how easily accessible the information held in two inch thick documents can become for the widest range of staff.

'Behind every number there are hundreds of words that give context and meaning. This is where knowledge management and business intelligence come together. Knowledge from the combination of words and numbers, and BI from the ability to manipulate and analyse the numbers. One business process that can benefit from both is MPC,' says Youell.

He further argues that web technology provides the best medium for blended, numeric, and contextual information, with the central server being the dynamic repository for all the knowledge on the financial process with monthly updates. The Comshare BudgetPlus MPC offering is positioned as having a topic driven interface, revealing things like monthly updates, strategic objectives, key dates, competitor information, and much more.

Another company already claiming to have a product covering both BI and KM is Datawatch International, a consulting and integration firm focused on enterprise reporting with its Monarch/ES software. Much of Datawatch's work with customers like Norweb, the Bank of Scotland, and other organisations involves examining the processes, operations, and structure. Datawatch's line is that using reporting and Olap tools to deliver information to a user is not enough. A more comprehensive solution is required to provide access to information from a wide variety of sources.

Yet some feel that in the debate about where the boundaries exist or not, BI and KM is not the right way to approach this issue. Richard Peace, information management programme manager at SAS Institute, reckons that a more appropriate consideration is how to ensure that data warehousing, BI and data mining support the creation and exploitation of knowledge within an organisation. Peace argues that the challenge of KM is to unite culture, process, and technology in support of an organisation's goals. Acting on this philosophy, SAS Institute has available the Web enabled Collaborative Business Intelligence server, covering BI, data warehousing, and KM. The goal with the CBI server is to facilitate confident and informed decision-making.

With the surge in e-business, the blurring of boundaries between disparate areas of the provision of management information and analysis is now common, according to Rob Zalums, managing director of Cognos, a leading BI tools vendor. The confusion arises because BI is more than a particular technology or product. BI is most importantly an effect on the business, according to Zalums, which occurs when meaningful business value is extracted from data and made easily accessible to business managers and workers, who can then use the intelligence to improve the performance of the business. l

AlphaBlox is a three-year old start-up launching officially in the UK this spring. The emergence of AlphaBlox - founded by UK entrepreneurs with US venture capital - has caused the Gartner Group analyst firm to place the vendor as the leading and currently the only company active in the e-business analytical applications space.

The AlphaBlox e-business Analytical Suite is a rapid assembly environment for creating programs serving the diverse information needs of user companies. The aim of the suite is to enable better decision making and performance analysis capabilities, drawing in information from a wide range of sources, both internal and external, to an organisation. The company has conceived the suite as a set of 'building blocks' based on Java components, known as the eBlox technology, which is completely wrapped in HTML.

The flexibility of this server based architecture means that there is zero client administration, as well as rapid application assembly. Information is also personalised for end-users through a browser, and AlphaBlox claims to have covered the range of connectivity issues regarding data sources.

The company is still in is pre-IPO phase, but once this milestone is passed it expects to go on the acquisition trail. It will not be a surprise if

AlphaBlox buys up knowledge management technology.

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