For many years, companies have been sold ‘classic’ business intelligence (BI): tools that promise to improve decision-making through the consolidation and analysis of key business data, that provide guidance on functional performance through scorecarding and dashboards, and that disseminate the derived information through reports.
But the reality is that, historically, the corporate exploitation of BI has not been a unified effort. Instead, implementations have been tactical, with different operating units choosing different tools at different times – often to tackle similar jobs. The result: A proliferation of BI tools, all producing piecemeal visions of operations.
That has been exacerbated as BI spreads beyond its traditional base of ‘power-users’ to include managers and, in some cases, employees at many levels of the organisation. So, senior executives expect to have dashboards that show them up-to-the-minute corporate performance data, while workers at the other end of the hierarchy are being alerted to situations such as impending product stock-outs or some upselling opportunity with a customer.
However, as BI adoption has grown within the business, so too has the tension between different tools. The lack of consistency of approach can mean that users fail to establish a ‘single version of the truth’, with finance managers and marketing executives, for example, working from different analyses of who their best customers are. Multiple tools from different vendors also mean multiple licence fees, high support costs and, often, an inefficient use of hardware resources.
In recent years, those factors have prompted many CIOs to rationalise the number of BI tools deployed throughout the business, says Keith Gile, principal analyst at IT advisory group Forrester Research. At the same, the BI industry itself has been going through a rapid round of consolidation, creating, in Gile’s mind, “yet another reason to standardise on a platform from a large BI vendor.”
But while there are compelling reasons to move away from a patchwork of point products strewn, the process of standardising on a single platform is far from straightforward.
While IT managers may be keen to reduce the number of different tools, it is “unusual” to see companies standardise on a single BI provider, says Graham Walter, vice president of Cognos for the UK, Middle-East and Africa. And while they may be able to reduce the list of suppliers they engage with to just two or three, they need to evaluate those providers carefully.
One discernable trend is for companies to pick an overall BI platform and supplement that with a limited number of specialist tools, to guarantee the best possible performance, says Renaud Besnard, SQL Server product solution marketing manager for Microsoft UK. “But there remains a question of who the most appropriate supplier is.”
There is something of a dichotomy for users here: If the best approach to standardisation is through the adoption of a BI platform, which will form the bedrock of an enterprise-wide system, which vendors should supply that platform?
On one side, the pure-play BI vendors such as Cognos and Business Objects stress the comprehensiveness of their suites; conversely database vendors such as Microsoft and Oracle have been aggressively moving into the BI market, and believe they can offer their tool-neutrality as a key point in their favour. "Managers need to consider whether one vendor can – or even should – provide all their BI tools," says Joseph Spear, marketing director at BI vendor Symtrax.
Whichever route businesses take, it would be a mistake to assume that standardisation will be a ‘quick win’, says Forrester’s Gile. In the first instance, companies must plan how to overcome resistance to moving from entrenched tools, as well as considering the technical challenge of the switch from one tool to another.
To mitigate risk, IT executives may be well advised to conduct a proper audit of BI tools, says Callum Nobles, technical director of BI vendor Information Builders. “You need to get a real view of what is being used on the ground, and that’s not always the same as the number of licences you bought for a particular tool.”
But while some level of standardisation is likely – especially for those companies where the number of BI tools runs into double figures – there may be practical limits on the degree of standardisation. Companies may resist the idea of getting all their business insight from one vendor. “Adopting a single vendor to supply all of the reporting and analysis solutions is a risk in itself, as innovation oftentimes comes from smaller, more nimble vendors,” adds Gile.
As the Information Age reader research shows, there is also little agreement about what should be included in a BI platform. Clearly, the majority of respondents believed query, reporting and analysis tools to be the most important constituents of a BI platform, but overall, there was little agreement.
This partly reflects the fragmented nature of the BI tools that are currently used, but it also illustrates the difficulties in deciding how a standardised toolset can meet organisational needs. “If companies want the best performance right across each BI function, there’s no way that they can get that from one vendor,” says Information Builders’ Nobles.
Cognos’ Walter is more pragmatic: When looking right across the board, there may be areas where point solutions out-perform platforms, “but the cost savings from having a single supplier outweigh any marginal performance issues.”
Reporting and planning stand apart as the 'must-haves' for BI. Besides those two, there is little concensus over what business intelligence should deliver.
Respondents indicated that specialist software vendors are still the first port of call when purchasing BI. Vendors making inroads from other markets have some way to go.