The pressure on CIOs to deliver business intelligence tools and analytic applications—on the cheap and ASAP—has been building steadily for years. In 2010, survey results point out that that demand has reached a fever pitch with which CIOs are very familiar.
"The interest in BI, use of it and sophistication of the use just grows every year," says Bill Swislow, CIO and SVP for product at Cars.com. "There are always business problems, and people are always looking for new BI tools to solve old problems."
[ For more on BI, see CIO.com's ERP and BI: A Match Made in Heaven, If You're in Data Hell ]
Recent Aberdeen surveys of enterprise execs show that BI has ranked number one (for two years running) as the technology that will have the most impact during the next two to five years. A January 2010 Kognitio and Baseline Consulting survey of BI practitioners noted that they expect to see "deeper use" of BI at their companies this year and plan to add capabilities to more business lines. Almost one-third surveyed indicated that they plan to roll out new BI tools into the corporate mix.
So what does that all mean for CIOs and IT departments? Whether your company is a newbie or a seasoned BI user, the demand for analytic applications will most likely be insatiable for the foreseeable future. "It has certainly in our business become increasingly influential," says Cars.com's Swislow. "Ya know, it gives one a feeling of knowledge, power and influence. And knowledge is power, right?"
Swislow should know. Before he added the CIO role to his title just about a year ago he was, he says, "one of the most active users and strongest advocates for BI initiatives from business side." Now he's the one having to field the requests, explain and expand IT's capabilities, and help the business get its BI wants and needs, where and when possible.
For sure, BI analytic apps and dashboards are hotter than a recent Tiger Woods photograph. But in a mad corporate rush to deliver BI and analytic applications to ever-eager business users, CIOs should first determine what are the business processes that will be made more efficient by the BI tools; ensure that the right data will get to the right people using the BI solution; and then select the correct software tools that will ultimately help users make more informed and intelligent decisions.
In other words, now is not the time to blindly throw BI technology to the masses.
Strategy First, Technology Second
Steve Anthony has been working with and implementing BI applications for a long time. He lists former consulting gigs (rolling out a massive BI system for the CDC, for instance) and the packages he's worked with (all the biggies: Business Objects, Cognos, Hyperion).
Now Anthony is a CIO with his own shop at Charles River Associates (CRA), a global consulting firm that offers financial and business management assistance to companies and governments. And while he's plenty conversant about BI apps and their features and functionalities, he's also well-versed in discussing the critical steps that should precede all of that other tech stuff that comes at the end of the process.
"BI is an interesting animal," Anthony says. Overall, what's important in any BI endeavor, he says, is: making certain the data is right and believable; determining how employees will use the data to get actionable results; and "ensuring that whatever we do aligns to our common business strategy."
All of that can take some time to figure out. At CRA, for instance, "we spent six months before we even started development" on a new and innovative BI system, Anthony says. He lists several key questions that they asked themselves: What key performance metrics do we need to operate as a company? What are the data sources? What are we trying to achieve? How does all of this align to our strategy? What does this mean to us? Where is the data? And lots more.
"We went through this whole big six months' worth of getting that information together, and once together, then we did this huge data-vetting exercise," he says. Senior management support throughout the entire process was critical.
The result, he says, will be an all-encompassing, innovative BI system with dashboards and Google-style querying that enable executives and practice leaders from across CRA to view, and slice and dice the data streams that they need most—whether that's HR or financial data on operating income or SGA revenues; new-business queries on employee skills and capabilities, or potential business conflicts; research pulled together from disparate sources; or social media capabilities to provide context and collaboration. (Some functionalities are already up and running, he says, and new elements are being added to the system on an ongoing basis.)
"It's really the overall intelligence that a company has in order to, at end of day, get the best revenue generation or the most revenue that you can based on specific opportunities," Anthony says.
"It's a big undertaking," he adds, "but companies that do it right and have the stamina can gain a strategic edge in comparison to competition and the folks who may not."
BI Tools Work Better—Finally
The growing corporate attraction to BI apps is not without valid reason: The analytic packages, user-friendly dashboards and data-management tools have, indeed, matured to a more capable state than ever before in their short history. Enterprise software vendors of nearly every stripe peddle some type of BI application.
"BI, to me, isn't new," says Jeff Liedel, the CIO of OnStar, the in-vehicle communications company and GM subsidiary. "What's new about it is that the tools have matured enough so that they can take cost out, increase speed and improve the depth of the analysis that you can do with your valuable resources." In other words: BI has finally hit the "cheaper, faster, better" stage.
The huge career-enhancing opportunity for IT right now, Liedel says, is to "lower the cost to generate the data and also give our business colleagues better ways to analyze [the data] to come up with trends and opportunities from the data."
Cars.com's Swislow says, simply, that BI is fundamental to his business, "which means it's a critical area to have processes with IT to mobilize the resources to maintain it and innovative how we use it." He says that Cars.com relies on vendor products for core tools and innovation—for instance, Business Objects, Cognos and Omniture (for online reporting analytics), among others. "But around the edges," Swislow adds, "you have to innovate on your own."
But whether they're using off-the-shelf or in-house BI apps, CIOs need to remember in this new era of Google Apps and SaaSy Web interfaces that they'd better ensure that ease of use is top of mind. "It has to be easy, intuitive and offer the ability for users to drill down and have that layers of 'depth,' so that as people get smarter they can drill down even further [into the BI tools' capabilities]," says CRA's Anthony, offering Microsoft's Excel as an example. "But you have to make sure those layers are very easy to begin with."
When that type of situation transpires, a sustained "snowball effect" can occur among the user community, offers Swislow, which can then lead to more valuable business results from the BI tools.
"It's like every step you take making better use of the tools just opens up more opportunities to use the information and do more interesting analytics," he says. "The questions never end, and when you answer one question, that means you have time to ask another question."
A BI System for One and All
In the not so distant future, as the definition of corporate "business intelligence" continues to sort itself out, it's easy to imagine BI as a highly targeted analytic interface, delivered to various users, that is able to manage, integrate and present the enterprise glut of back-office transactional data that streams through organizations today, such as ERP, CRM and supply chain systems.
This personalized BI interface, in other words, would take be able to take the pulse of and easily display everything relevant happening to the enterprise at any given time.
CRA's Anthony says that this type of BI system ensures that executives, managers and decision makers are making their decisions based on the analytic and reporting data that is not only most relevant to them but also has the most value from an enterprise perspective. "Everything working together is much more powerful than anyone working in their vacuum," Anthony says. "That's where the new CIOs, in my mind, are becoming the strategic partner because of BI and the data provided. This [type of] CIO understands the business and the technical layer that provides that data. It's a big role."
At Cars.com, Swislow mentions the value that data from "one big analytics engine" can deliver, not only to business users in terms of customer, website and sales data; but also in how Cars.com demonstrates the site's value to advertisers and also the helpful data that Cars.com can provide to the consumers who make more than 1 million searches on the site each day. "There's a tremendous amount of intelligence there at multiple levels," he says.
No matter where your BI travels take you, though, CIOs say that the BI journey isn't one that will be ending any time soon.
"BI is an absolute journey that doesn't end because we must change with the changing business environment," Anthony says. "Certainly in these dynamic times, if we don't have the data and believe that data to make the decisions, we lose."