by Thomas Wailgum

Don’t Make Business Intelligence Suck for Users

Apr 02, 20086 mins
Enterprise Applications

I spent last week reporting and writing four articles for a special package on business intelligence for CIO. The first article provided an overview of the tumultuous and complex challenges that the BI industry (including vendors and customers) faces right now. The second article examined nine BI vendors whose strategies will have an enormous influence on business intelligence tools and technologies in the very near future. The third article investigated the growth of the on-demand BI market. The fourth offered some tips for companies that are struggling to manage their BI systems’ total cost of ownership.

BI is at the top of many companies’ to-do lists right now, as the surveys and research cited in the BI series show. And for good reason. If done right, BI analytics and reporting applications provide front-line business users, CFOs and anyone else who needs detailed, far-reaching real-time information of just how their companies are performing at any given moment. “I can slice and dice it anyway I want” is a phrase you hear a lot from satisfied BI users.

I learned a lot about the BI market from reporting these stories and talking to BI users, analysts and vendors. But it was the sources who spoke to me for the on-demand BI story that grabbed me the most. Taken together, their insights and experiences reveal another angle to the intriguing storyline that I’m sure everyone in IT is sick of hearing about (though it’s not going away any time soon).

That is, the “consumerization” of IT, where empowered users feel like they need IT less and less to make technology decisions. Another chapter of this phenomenon seems to be unfolding with on-demand BI tools.

Indicative of this change (and, quite frankly, what astounded me the most) were the people who agreed to speak with me for the story: Dennis Hernreich, COO and CFO of Casual Male Retail Group; Scott Cohenford, a senior analyst at RapidAdvance; and Bill Coyne, director of purchasing and logistics for Welch’s.

Not one CIO or IT staffer among them.

Most of the time it is difficult for me to get a COO, CFO, accountant or logistics manager to speak with me about how they were involved in a system rollout or how they actually use an IT system (if they do at all). “Sure you don’t want to talk with someone in IT about this?” they’ll usually say.

Not this time. They were all more than willing to tell me about how they chose and implemented their on-demand BI system, how they worked with IT (if they did at all) and just how easy the new system was to “consume.” These conversations included them lobbing not-so-subtle shots at on-premise systems and the headaches, costs and complexity usually involved in these endeavors and how they had been greatly reduced with an on-demand solution.

A perfect example of this came from RapidAdvance’s Cohenford. His title is senior analyst, and he works on RapidAdvance’s financial side. His background is in accounting. Yet he was put in charge of procuring a BI system for RapidAdvance, a provider of cash advances to small and midsize businesses.

Cohenford pulled it off, quickly, by going with several applications from Business Object’s OnDemand suite. “I never worked in a database or an IT environment before this,” Cohenford says. “The ease of use and functionalities these systems have enabled me to create a very complex reporting system for our company without having that IT background.”

Think about that: Someone with virtually no traditional IT experience made a major purchase from a tier-one vendor, and as he describes it, it wasn’t that difficult.

Another great example of this trend came from Welch’s Coyne. When I told him how easy it all sounded (Welch’s started using an on-demand transportation and logistics application in January 2008, after a six-week rollout, and was already getting some amazing results), he responded: “I don’t have a technical background, but it did seem too easy.” He thought at first that the new on-demand BI application sounded too good to be true, but he quickly discovered it wasn’t.

It’s important to note two things about his situation: Welch’s is not a small company ($654 million in sales last year), so the “on-demand and SaaS applications only work at SMB companies” excuse doesn’t hold water here.

In addition, the consumer-packaged goods manufacturer known for its jams, jellies and juices had just finished a four-year $31million project installing Oracle’s ERP applications on-premise, which included a BI application, in fall 2007. But the Oracle BI app “didn’t have a good transportation and distribution cost-reporting tool,” as Coyne noted.

So they went with an on-demand solution that was up and running in weeks (not years). As to Coyne’s self-admitted “technological limitations” in understanding the back-office and integration mechanisms that make the BI application work, he doesn’t seem too concerned. “I don’t know how TV works,” Coyne says, “but I enjoy it.”

Of course, I’m not advocating for on-demand everything because there are plenty of instances where on-demand or SaaS just doesn’t work right now. But where it is applicable and desperately needed by users, like business intelligence, it’s amazing to me how users will respond and embrace a system like Welch’s or RapidAdvance’s.

In the end, shouldn’t technology be this easy to procure, integrate and use? Shouldn’t non-IT people, who get what they need in the end, want to extol the benefits of technology to anybody who’d care to listen, including a CIO reporter?

IT better wake up to this trend. With more easy-to-install on-demand applications on the horizon, IT’s role as gatekeeper will be further minimized, say analysts. By 2012, Gartner Research Director Kurt Schlegel predicts that emerging technologies such as on-demand and SaaS BI tools will make users “less dependent on central IT departments to meet their BI requirements.”

(For more on CIO‘s special BI series, see Part 1 “BI: A Technology Category in Tumult”; Part 2 “Nine BI Vendors to Watch“; Part 3 “BI and On-Demand: The Perfect Marriage?”; and Part 4 What You Need to Know About BI TCO.”)