Friday, December 16, 2011

BI - It's Not Just Reporting

Many times across my career I've been frustrated by what is, in my opinion, a gross under utilisation of business intelligence tools, platforms and even functions and teams such as Business Intelligence Competency Centres. All too often significant investment has been made in purchasing software, building data warehouses and other solutions, training staff and hiring external consultants, only to have this considerable horsepower and potential being set to work on (just) "the reporting".

Building BI solutions often comes at considerable cost in both time and money and if the chief item provided is purely a set of static reports that tell us what has happened in our organisations then someone, somewhere (and probably somewhere higher up in the organisational chart) will sooner or later start to question the wisdom of the investment. And that's not just a problem for the here and now of the current project, but for the future too. If he has been tainted as to the general value of business intelligence then he may well push back against future initiatives in the area, potentially robbing the organisation of future competitive advantage or effectiveness gains. The problem is made worse still when the default approach to setting project scope is to examine the set of existing reports available from in and around the incumbent solution. In this case the company will have a shiny new toy and (maybe) a prettier set of reports, but may not have gained much in the way of additional business value or actionable insight.

We need to remember that BI offers the potential for much more than just reporting. This was true well over a decade ago and is even more true today with the technology and tool advances we've seen between then and now. Just look at the name: BI, that's Business intelligence folks - intelligence for the business. Simply knowing what happened (via a report), for the sake of compliance, audit or because the procedures say we need to have a piece of paper punched and filed on a shelf, really does little for the running of the business, let alone its advancement. BI should be about helping make decisions that better the business, that help it carry out its operations in the best way possible.

The term "decision support" may seem a bit old school, but perhaps it does capture what BI can offer to the business other than just "the reports". Recently I heard the phrase "the three tenses of BI" and it resonated with me. The first phase is historical - this is the looking back, telling us what happened, function of BI - these are the reports that so often get developed as the majority, or even the entirety, of a BI project. The second tense is the present tense. BI instruments in this area tell us what is happening right now. Reports can serve this function too, but often they miss a key component that stops them playing an effective role. Whatever is used here, be it reports, OLAP components or some type of complex event processing, the information conveyed must be provided in a form and in a time frame that allows it to be used by the recipients in a manner and a timeliness which causes a change which benefits the business that would not otherwise have occurred. The third tense of BI looks to the future - using not only internal information but also looking at wider information sets to try and predict what may happen in the future in and around the organization, thereby providing food for thought for those setting the strategic direction for the organization. What's important to note there is that the second and third tenses of BI require information and intelligence to be presented in order not just to enable decisions to be made, but perhaps also go so far as to highlight that decisions should, or even must, be made.

Simply having a great set of tools available isn't enough. If we want to move on from being perceived as just report writers then it's up to us, as BI professionals, to educate others as to the potential of BI, challenging and assisting them to find ways in which it can be better used across our organisations. So go on, take the first step - share this blog post :)

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