Opinion: Beyond BI

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Justin Short, General Manager at Contemporary PLC, examines the adoption of 2nd Generation BI and outlines how it is able to revolutionise information delivery & accessibility

If 2nd Generation BI sounds like something from outer space then think again! Business Intelligence (BI) has evolved over recent years to feed the minds of the modern enterprise. Offering a compelling solution to the renowned and dreaded complex reporting tools, 2nd Generation BI is a platform that provides users with seamless, interactive web access to critical information without having to trawl through numerous reports. 2nd Generation BI enables information to be represented in an accessible manner through graphics and analytics, allowing the user to quickly make tangible decisions on actual business data.

Compare 2nd Generation BI to the modern day supermarket experience. A growing number of shoppers don’t even set foot in the store nowadays all the ingredients they require to produce a meal are delivered to their doors. In a similar vein 2nd Generation BI feeds the minds of the enterprise, pulling together the critical ingredients and delivering it to the end user in a meaningful format.

Producing reports in the past was similar to dashing around the supermarket with five minutes to spare, grabbing a variety of different ingredients, throwing them in your basket and then having to use the right combinations to create something satisfying! However to produce something satisfactory you need to know what ingredients are required and where to find them in the first place! If you don’t know where all the data resides to produce the end result it’s not an enjoyable experience!
Today a 2nd Generation BI portal has the power to offer a wide selection of reporting, analysis and business information through a simple web interface, delivering the finished result to the end user’s front door. This service enables the user to create a variety of ‘information meals’ that are suitable for the final consumer.

So where does 2nd Generation BI fit in? Basic reporting addresses 90% of an organisation’s information needs, a bit like a mother grabbing a few necessities for the children’s tea or a TV supper. The requirement is for immediate and efficient access to data that will help make a quick and easy decision. For example, to a sales manager, sales against target for a given period will provide essential and meaningful information on a daily basis. These basic reporting abilities meet the bread and butter requirements for all departments across any organisation.

Once users become aware that information is available in such a fast and efficient manner the inevitable happens their appetite increases! Organisations want to have the ability to not only deliver three square daily meals but also allow users to snack on titbits of information - an ‘ad-hoc’ process that has often been misunderstood in the past.

The delivery process of information is extremely important. Providing users with the ability to ad-hoc query and report appears to be an increasing desire of many companies, providing users with an ‘access to all’ or ‘self-service’ approach. There is a critical downside to this though while it enables the users to become immensely powerful it does tend to leave them swimming in data. Ad hoc reporting has often been wrongly identified as the ideal route to ‘information democracy’ for the business, but providing this kind of open access has its problems. Traditional ad-hoc reporting presents a number of challenges to any company wishing to introduce an information infrastructure.

Giving the various users access to the relevant data can be problematic from a number of angles. Most modern operational transactional databases are highly complex with many fields, tables and relationships, this makes it incredibly difficult for an untrained user to find the information they require and leads to the needle in a haystack analogy often encountered in ad-hoc driven environments. The solution to this problem is the use of a semantic or abstraction layer which sits between the user and the database and presents the key business metrics in a simple and consistent manner which can be understood by the entire information community within the business.

Another issue which results from a proliferation of ad-hoc reports concerns duplication of effort, in other words a number of users creating several versions of exactly the same report or query which in turn run several times against the same database to return the same results.

This is one of the more serious results of implementing traditional ad-hoc report writing, users tend get into the habit of always starting from a blank canvas rather than looking at existing reports. This manifests itself in lost business time and also results in unneeded loading of operational databases which in turn can lead to performance issues and problems for the IT department.

Self-service access to predefined information combats these issues and therefore caters for what most companies perceive to be their ‘ad-hoc’ needs. In this way 2nd Generation BI delivers interactive reports to the web browser which supports functions such as drill down and dynamic prompts. This approach filters out relevant information based on questions and has the ability to seamlessly deliver the information through guided analytics.

2nd Generation BI effectively takes a type of intelligent interactive analysis that was previously only capable of being delivered by Executive Information Systems (EIS) or Management Information Systems (MIS) and only available to a handful of people. Now through interactive web analytics the information is available to the entire business and beyond. This leads onto highly intelligent analytic capabilities supported by the fact that the integrated data on which 2nd Generation BI sits is able to reflect detailed inter-relationships, causal effects and the complex business logic that make up the fabric of every organisation.

An example of an intelligent analytic of this kind would be if a sales manager had noticed that sales were down in a particular department he/she could check historical data through Online Application Processing (OLAP) to assess not only how the company has overcome this problem in the past but also to test scenarios that could counteract the reduction in sales. This is a high level and complex reporting activity that takes place through guided analytics producing a trend analysis that can help the user make an informed decision and address the issue they may be facing.

2nd Generation BI has the ability to provide business users with the ability to easily navigate data across many dimensions. Rather than creating a separate picture of each individual ingredient needed to create an information meal, it brings all the ingredients together in one multi-perspective view so that all dimensions are viewed together in context of what the user actually requires.

2nd Generation BI is therefore regarded today as a strategic infrastructure that harnesses the entire life-cycle (storage, management, distribution and consumption) of critical business information for action and decision making, the information that it provides is as essential as daily bread.

Simply put 2nd Generation BI does all the leg work while allowing controlling capabilities. If you wish to control certain users the application can ensure that they do not deviate from their own route whereas power users and analysts are able to take the same application and treat it as a starting point for more complex and ad hoc analysis. Security aspects and the personalised experience of using a BI system go hand in hand. For example, the actual shopping experience within a supermarket compared to the online shopping experience is particularly negative - searching around a large supermarket will usually become an exhausting and frustrating experience. By shopping online the web brings all the key elements of the supermarket to you that are relevant. Infact the experience is so tailored to the user that it becomes more like shopping in the village stores!

The ultimate goal for these platforms is to seamlessly combine OLAP driven analysis with relational reporting enabling seamless integration and offering the best of both worlds. By offering structured and unstructured content, 2nd generation BI enables businesses and individual users to build information profiles that they can gain real value from.

Justin Short is General Manager at Contemporary PLC, specialists in Business Intelligence (BI) consultancy and implementation. Tel: 01344 297600, Email: [email protected] or visit www.contemporary.co.uk

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