The promise of business intelligence is a simple, but far-reaching one: the tools offer the insight into corporate and customer activity – both present and forecast – that is required for fast and effective decision-making. At all levels that vision is manifesting itself in management dashboards, providing a direct window into up-to-the-minute measurements of corporate performance.
But as the discussion surrounding business or corporate performance management (CPM) has grown, some market watchers are warning that the current set of technologies may not be adequate for building the ultimate vision of CPM.
The problem, says Keith Gile of industry analysts Forrester Research, is that one component is missing: process integration. He believes that the current suites lack a consistent mechanism for defining, managing and implementing detailed business processes from external applications. "Today's BI solutions rely heavily on data constructs – cubes, tables and views – to define process relevance, excluding any formal mechanism to define the business process. What is left is data that is taken out of business context."
The traditional approach to BI means that data is extracted from operational systems and loaded into a repository – a data warehouse, mart or cube. This static approach to business intelligence is reflected in the corporate understanding of BI: frequently it is characterised as a backward looking approach, one principally used for analysing past performance. And only in financial applications has it been widely applied to planning and forecasting.
However, as the transactional world shifts up a gear and businesses have started demanding real-time information, these largely batch processes start to look clunky. They highlight the trade off between latency and performance within the data warehouse that means BI tools have struggled to provide much of a sense of real-time analysis.
The technology vendors have recognised the problem; indeed products are starting to emerge. But these have not originated from BI vendors. Instead it is the business process management (BPM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors, both of which understand business process, that are leading the way.
BPM tools support the management and orchestration of processes, monitoring and comparing defined levels of performance against measured levels. Ultimately, BPM may evolve its ability to suggest methods of improving performance. This is a concept that ERP vendors have taken to heart: SAP has set its sights on its service-oriented architecture (based on the company's NetWeaver application server and integration broker) being established as a business process platform for the entire enterprise; and it is already building its analytic applications to support this.
In parallel with those efforts has been a broadening of the role of BI vendors to offer CPM, where key performance indicators are identified and performance against these gauged and reported on. CPM is based on the cornerstone of BI: reporting, multi-dimensional analysis, scorecarding, says Ad Voogt, senior vice president of European operations at Cognos.
The BI vendors have also been busily partnering up to meet the challenges of real-time data analysis: Cognos has agreed a deal with enterprise information integration vendor Composite Software; likewise Business Objects agreed a partnership with integration specialist Attunity. That points to a greater emphasis on integrating data. "Data management will become increasingly important, so that businesses can define what data is, where it is and ensure consistency," says Nigel Youell, marketing manager at Hyperion. But CPM also requires a fundamental shift in how organisations think of BI. Instead of being a tactical tool used in small areas of the company, CPM virtually demands that business intelligence is woven into the corporate genes, touching all staff. "In any industry there's a bell curve [of adoption]. But we're seeing a lot of customers starting out on that journey," says Cognos's Voogt.
According to analyst house Gartner, operationally focused, process-centric models of BI will emerge initially in the financial services, manufacturing and consumer-packaged goods industries where complex process problems exist, and the need for analysis is so much greater. This process-centric version of BI will present information to users in a form that can relate their everyday tasks to performance; providing them with workflows and guided analyses that help them to make sense of the data being presented.
Such developments are bound to radically reshape the BI landscape. One likely outcome is for a gradual coalescence of BI and BPM vendors. The ERP vendors could have their say too: database and applications software vendor Oracle has gone on record saying it has looked at major acquisitions in BI. Whatever the final outcome, process-centric BI looks set to have dramatic consequences for vendors and users alike.