Taking business intelligence to the masses

As Microsoft introduces intelligence tools for a wider audience, established suppliers are looking to provide role-based functionality across the business

As Microsoft introduces intelligence tools for a wider audience, established suppliers are looking to provide role-based functionality across the business

As Microsoft prepares to drive business intelligence down the business food chain with this month's release of Business Scorecard Manager 2005, users are facing the issue of whether to abandon established business intelligence tools and go the Microsoft route.

Other business intelligence suppliers, such as Cognos, SAS and Hyperion, are also focusing on making business tools available to more employees through role-based tools and interfaces that are easier to use. SAS, for example, has outlined a strategy called "BI for the Masses".

Microsoft's Office Business Scorecard Manager 2005 is a server-based business score-carding application that uses Office, in particular Excel, and the SQL Server database platform. This lets companies deploy personalised scorecards to staff so they can track key performance indicators against goals.

Microsoft plans to make other business intelligence features  mainstream next year. These include portal and collaboration tools via Sharepoint 12, data analysis through Excel 12, and integration, analysis, reporting and datawarehousing with SQL Server 2005. The Office 12 suite is expected in the second half of 2006.

In October, Hyperion also sought a broader audience of users with the release of its System 9 product.

System 9 integrates financial management applications into a business intelligence platform to broaden the reach of business intelligence across an organisation, said John Kopcke, chief technology officer at Hyperion. The software offers users a role-based interface, where roles are defined by the company using the system. It can then define the databases and reports each role can access.

Hotel chain Hyatt International is one early adopter of System 9. It plans to use it to gain a unified approach to collecting data from Oracle and other applications.

Clive Longbottom, service director at analyst firm Quocirca, said making business intelligence available to the entire workforce may come at a cost to businesses.

He believes that many business managers do not have the expertise to use business intelligence systems effectively. "The highly skilled will understand, but the marketing campaign manager or sales director may come up with something that meets their agenda and beat people over the head with the data. Unfettered use of business intelligence may not help a company," he said.

Longbottom added that role-based business intelligence tools may hold the answer to this problem because they can limit what data employees can access. "By making it role-based, you can give best practice templates to staff," he said.

Longbottom said that despite Microsoft's stated strategy, pervasive business intelligence is not here yet. "We are a couple of years away from IBM and Microsoft being able to say they have got all the bits put together properly. Gaining acceptance from the market will take another 12 to 18 months after that," he said.

Another issue is the abundance of portals and dashboards with which to view a company's data. These are available from most business intelligence suppliers, including Hyperion, Business Objects, SAS, and now Microsoft.

"We are getting to the point where a large number of organisations are realising they have too much heterogeneity in their portal environment, with portals from Siebel, Oracle Plumtree, and MySap, for example," said Longbottom.

Many companies are therefore selecting either IBM Websphere Portal or Microsoft Sharepoint Portal as the front-end for their reporting tool, he said.

Business Objects is releasing version two of its Business Objects XI business intelligence suite this month, with new features including intelligent question, said the supplier's chief executive John Schwarz.

"This provides the ability for the end-user to ask natural language questions and to structure their query in ways that do not require programming. The entire interface is geared to writing sentences," he said.

Schwarz added that Business Objects is developing Trusted Business Intelligence, where the user can be sure that a data element is linked to the source database, the linkage is never broken, the data has not been tampered with, and they can drill down to the source.

Business Objects is also working on Operational Business Intelligence, where the data is constantly being updated, so it stays "dynamically current". This will allow companies to use the latest information from a real-time stream.

Schwarz said several trends have become apparent over the past year:

  • In organisations with more than 5,000 staff, 75% to 80% have business intelligence installed - in some cases, 15 different tools - but their usage is light
  • In the mid-market, there is fairly light deployment, with an average of two tools deployed
  • IT departments tend to buy the business intelligence platform, but business managers tend to choose the analytics.

At the root of the future product strategy of SAS is the notion that businesses should be able to use their data as a resource to be exploited, said Richard Kellett, strategy manager for technology  at SAS UK. "We have to make every part of the business effective and help everyone make decisions," he said.

This will mean giving expert business intelligence users powerful interfaces that are easier to use, and mainstream users more automated but equally powerful  processes with simple interfaces, said Kellett.

Another element will be business activity monitoring coupled with business modelling, so only significant events are tracked. SAS currently provides this service for Honda's warranty analysis. This has saved the car maker significant costs, said Kellett. 

Hyperion recently released Hyperion System 9 Business Intelligence+. Key to this version is the ability to carry out business management, financial and production reporting, and the use of multi-source dashboards and personal workspaces.

Hyperion said System 9 Business Intelligence+ is one of the first business intelligence tools to use personalised workspaces for business performance management, so end-users do not have to switch between multiple systems and technologies to get the answers to their business questions.

According to Quocirca, a lot of suppliers are jumping on the business process wagon, and using business intelligence as a business performance management tool. But it predicted further industry consolidation as the more established providers attempt to buy up the competition. Industry experts also believe Oracle and SAP are likely to buy up specialised business intelligence firms.


Lack of integration frustrates users, says Forrester

Users have expressed frustration with early business activity monitoring implementations, according to Henry Peyret, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

"Products are too tightly linked to supplier technologies such as business process management or business intelligence, and they are not really open enough to support a service oriented architecture [SOA] strategy yet," he said.

Users said the need to collect performance management data from numerous places and aggregate this in dashboards was a fundamental requirement. But suppliers will need to define standards and have more integration capabilities before they can claim that business activity monitoring is ready for SOA, said Peyret. "Customers have found the first implementations to be immature," he said.

Energy company EDF was one organisation that expressed surprise at how few suppliers were able to measure end-to-end process performance.

"Most business activity monitoring tools can only collect key performance indicators from business process management tools from the same supplier. Only the same supplier's business process management product can provide the performance management KPIs represented in business activity monitoring dashboards," said Peyret. "Additionally, these products are currently difficult to integrate with each other."


Read more on Business intelligence software