Widening the net

The spread of BI tools across the enterprise is having some perverse effects: key corporate decision-making is being taken out of the hands of those at the top of the hierarchy; now users at the coalface are being empowered to take decisions that directly impact company performance.

UK airline British Airways is a case in point. Its executives realised that for each of the 38 million passengers it flies to 216 destinations across 94 different countries, the whole customer experience would be critically undermined by a bag going missing en route.

As a vital component in helping BA meet its customer service and punctuality targets, the baggage handling team were equipped with business intelligence tools, that gives them early warning on potential problems.

The benefits for British Airways are clear: it has maximised profitability on each flight using route analysis to calculate capacity planning, as well as being able to target customer promotions to maximise yield on each flight. Overall, it has generated over £50 million in cost savings and revenue.

And yet, many organisations remain reluctant to empower their employees with decision-making tools. Despite tools being available for well over a decade now, up to 85% of employees do not have access to business intelligence tools, says John Schwarz, CEO of business intelligence vendor Business Objects.

Marginalising the minority

Schwarz’s comments are reflected in the Information Age survey that shows that in the majority of organisations less that 25% of employees currently use business intelligence of any type (see graph). But while this represents an appetising opportunity for the BI vendors, it is indicative of how many businesses are struggling to overcome challenges with their BI implementations.

One problem is the continuing restriction of BI tools to a group of business analysts and power users within the enterprise, says Dave Armstrong, northern Europe marketing director at Information Builders. “Those systems that are in use have been selected by the power users who require a very high level of analytics within the tools they use and, as a result, they are not as generally available or user-friendly to a wider range of users.”

The more general user can be daunted by these complex applications, preferring to stick with what they know and trust – applications such as Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet. According to analysts at Forrester Research, most businesses have between five and fifteen separate BI solutions actively running and the applications have been deployed at a departmental, rather than enterprise level, creating a host of redundant reporting tools and data inconsistencies.

The popularity of Excel has resulted in much of the analysis of operational data being done on the fly, “cobbling something together using Excel and organisational databases,” says Richard Neale, UK product marketing manager at Business Objects. The result is inconsistent analyses that cannot easily be distributed throughout the business.

But while traditional BI tools are not appropriate or useful for many employees, “a significant portion of the demand is for the more basic functionality, such as reporting, ad hoc querying and online analytical processing (OLAP),” says Colleen Graham, principal analyst at IT advisory group Gartner.

The vendors have responded to this demand by moving towards web-based tools, even delivering basic BI functionality through the software-as-a-service model. Meanwhile others such as Oracle, Cognos and SAS have been expanding partnerships with search giant Google, providing links from Google’s newly released enterprise search engine OneBox application into their applications. This is helping to give BI tools a more easily-recognised look and feel, enhancing their appeal.

As the use of BI has permeated across the enterprise, it is moving away from a report-centric historical view of the organisation towards a real-time snapshot of what is happening at all levels of the business at any given moment. Initiatives such as corporate performance management and event-driven analysis are enabling businesses to make better decisions, faster and re-invigorating the BI market, says Gartner’s Graham.

But the proliferation of real-time intelligence carries with it risks. At high street retailer Dunkin’ Donuts, sales data is scrutinised for every possible insight into which product sells well and under what conditions in an effort to maximise efficiency. But this produces a tremendous volume of data – and ensuring that the data is accurate is vital.

For those companies that can master the challenges of working out which areas of the business require real time data, there will be a massive advantage, says Graham Waler, EMEA vice president at business intelligence vendor Cognos, namely the ability to react.

The largest set of respondent companies contains those which grant managers on all levels of the corporate hierarchy access to BI tools.

Business intelligence tools are used by fewer than quarter of employees in an overwhelming majority of respondent companies.


Andy Hinxman

Andy Hinxman is owner and founder of Keybridge IT Solutions, a specialist London-based IT company offering support, hosting and specialist IT services to clients in all sectors. Keybridge began trading...

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