BI versus Decision Support

Older CIOs will remember the days when the term ‘decision support’ was commonly used in reference to the reporting and analysis capability embedded in IT systems. As all kinds of new fangled ideas then came onto the market, however, carrying much more dynamic labels such as ‘data warehousing’, ‘analytics’ and ‘business intelligence’, the older phrase became unfashionable and ultimately regarded as synonymous with the production of the infamous ‘doorstop report’, containing far more management information than anyone could ever use effectively.

Lately, though, we at Freeform Dynamics have been involved in a number of activities around the management and use of information for business decision making, and when you look at the nature of the challenges faced by organisations today and some of the language used, you sometimes begin to miss the old way of terminology. The trouble is that when people hear the current buzz words and phrases – business intelligence, analytics, data warehousing, and so on - they tend to map the various terms onto technology categories for either the ‘heavy lifting’ extraction, transformation, collation and crunching of data, or the clever analysis that typically follows.

With this in mind, when we then see reports from analysts highlighting business intelligence (BI) as being high on the CIO agenda, it can all get quite misleading. Our own research consistently tells us that many organisations continue to struggle with the problems of data fragmentation, duplication, and so on, and indeed this is increasingly an area for improvement that is recognised and prioritised for investment. But in technology terms this encompasses a whole range of information management and delivery solutions beyond what many would consider ‘classic BI’.

One of the activities the Freeform team has been involved in recently, for example, is writing a short book on the use of information at the edges of the business, which is basically about surfacing the right data at the right level and the right time in a business process. In many cases, this does not involve a lot of ‘analytics’ or ‘BI’ per se, as the data required may actually be quite simple – e.g. an aggregate view of customer activity in a call centre context, or a quick breakdown of the calls hitting the customer services agents in the past hour.

The problem to be solved in this kind of scenario is around systems integration, rules definition, workflow execution, and so on – basically the coming together of information management with domains such as service oriented architecture (SOA) and business process management (BPM). Get this right, though, especially if you can take an architectural approach to information integration and delivery, and you can enable even relatively unskilled workers on the front line to make key decisions, avoiding the overhead and delay of referrals, escalations, and so on.

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