Can You Spy BI?

Tim Scannell

Updated · Mar 24, 2008

What you see is not necessarily what you get.

At least that's the case with a lot of business intelligence software, which many companies tend to deploy with the use of spreadsheets over easier to digest graphics as a way of presenting data, and understanding how to use the data to form strategy.

“Individuals do not realize the extent to which using spreadsheets hinders their efficiency,” says Robert Kugel, senior vice president and research director at Ventana Research. The firm regularly follows the use of business intelligence software tools.

The firm's prognosis: Half of the companies the researchers spoke with reported finding major errors in spreadsheet data and formulas, and close to 42 percent have come to expect out-of-date and relatively useless information in the spreadsheets they use everyday.

“One of the most striking findings from our research is the degree to which people who use spreadsheets have become numb to the real risk of losses and difficulties they pose,” notes Kugel.

The problem is getting worse as more companies make use of multiple internal and eternal data flows and information mash-ups to create more accurate pictures of the competition, as well as customers and future business opportunities.

“Traditionally, the users of BI tools have been limited to ‘power users',” adds Joydeep Das, an ITSG product engineer with database software maker Sybase. In this playground, the statisticians and financial analysts are at the top of the pecking order. Increasingly, however, “line-of-business managers and frontline employees such as customer service representatives are being armed with BI tools and dashboards.”

So here's the rub, experts say. BI helps end-users make sense of a flood of data with visually-appealing graphics and laser-targeted use of data in order to make informed decisions or devise strategy. But not as many users truly understand how to use the tools.

That's not stopping its appeal, however. Take the recent acquisitions frenzy in the BI sector. Last November, IBM (NYSE:IBM) paid $5 billion for BI solutions provider Cognos, a long-time partner that worked with Big Blue on many of the same customers.

The deal followed SAP's $6.7 billion acquisition a month earlier of Business
, and Oracle's $3.3 billion purchase in May 2007 of Hyperion.

Together, all of these BI companies add up to about two-thirds of what will be a market worth more than $7 billion by 2011, says research firm Gartner. This can create some problems for those competing head-to-head on the same technology playing field, but also presents opportunities for new and “pure-play” BI vendors with a talent for presenting more visually-oriented data on BI “dashboards.”

Digestible BI?

By translating numbers into visual representations and even real-time dials and gauges, BI dashboards can relate to everyone up and down the corporate ladder and can graphically pinpoint trends that might otherwise be missed.

“BI products suddenly become dramatically easier to use and consume,”
points out Sanju Bansal, executive vice president and CEO of Microstrategy, a BI solutions developer. “Users don't necessarily like pretty pictures, but they do like one-stop shopping for investigating the data.”

Next page: BI's Evolution

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