BI software advances can't address adoption issues, CIOs say

At a recent business intelligence summit, CIOs were excited over the rapid evolution of BI software -- but mindful of how hard it is to make BI solutions work.

Business intelligence, or BI software products are being touted for making it possible for business users to generate in-depth reports without any hand-holding from IT staff. IT executives like Gary Gallant, however, are not holding their breath.

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 Gallant, vice president of the global applications center of expertise at perfume maker Coty Inc., has his eye on several BI software advances that promise to bring BI to the masses. One is the Magnify enterprise search tool, made by Information Builders Inc.

"Today, with our material company information, you have to drill through a hierarchy to get to the right level," explained Gallant, on hand at the recent annual gathering of users of Information Builders' WebFocus BI platform. "This is more like a Google search, which everybody knows how to use."

Gallant also could definitely see how WebFocus InfoAssist, an ad hoc query tool, would help make BI the bottom-up, democratic pursuit the BI industry touts. But that won't happen tomorrow.

"The adoption of the tools is not there yet," Gallant said, convinced that widespread user-generated BI will not take hold until the digital natives are in charge. "The generation running things now doesn't get the idea of data joining data and looking at data."

Gallant was typical of many of the BI professionals at the Information Builders conference: marveling at the technological innovation, on the prowl for ways to enhance their BI products and still struggling with such perennial BI adoption problems.

"What's the biggest challenge?" asked J. Ed Smith, CIO of Hanover, Pa.-based snack food maker Utz Quality Foods Inc. "Crafting the applications towards what the business needs are. It is always about getting the right information to the right people at the right time."

Good data doesn't mean good business decisions

Consultant Cindi Howson, founder of the BIScorecard online information service, is not surprised by the tempered enthusiasm of Gallant and Utz.

"I think a lot of IT people are still trying to get to that idea of self-service and empowering business decision makers. But how do you do that? Do you do it with a dashboard? Or with a mobile device, or by embedding it in an operational application?" Howson asked.

Business people are overwhelmed by data and reports. "The ongoing challenge is how we make sure, as an industry, that people are using data to make better decisions to improve efficiency and profitability," Howson said. "There is a growing recognition that even if you have access to good data, that doesn't mean you make good decisions. I think there is an increased focus on how do we align BI with what the business drivers are."

At Coty, BI piggybacks on SAP implementation

At New York-based Coty, the alignment of BI with business drivers had to await a change in corporate culture and IT strategy, Gallant said. The company had long done BI reporting, but reporting tended to get done region by region and disseminated to top executives monthly via spreadsheet or phone call. Managers massaged numbers based on what they anticipated coming in. Regions had their favorite best-of-breed BI tools, and sharing information was not part of the company culture.

This is not about being pretty. Pretty or fast doesn't matter, if it is not what the business wants or uses.
Jack Wilson
enterprise architectAmerisure Mutual Insurance Co.

 "There was a pitting of market against market [within the company], and not necessarily collaborating with peers," Gallant said.

That mind-set began to change with Coty's acquisition of the $700 million Unilever Cosmetics division five years ago. To reap the benefits of that investment, IT integration became a top priority for the company, and the push was on for a single enterprise resource planning, or ERP, system and a single BI solution. In fact, Coty's global implementation of SAP was the prime driver in standardizing BI at what is now a $4 billion company, Gallant said.

"We've been rolling out the BI solution as we have been putting countries on SAP," Gallant said.

Leveraging BI across the enterprise at Utz

Utz's Smith is pleased that the company's business executives start their days reading BI reports, a cultural change that occurred after the tool was first deployed more than 10 years ago. And he continues to push the envelope. His modest, eight-person IT team, for example, is in the midst of a sophisticated analytics project to track profit margins on the company's products for internal use and for store customers. His main mission these days, however, is to leverage the BI WebFocus platform for reporting across the enterprise.

"I drew a line in the sand a few years ago and said, 'We are going to use this tool. We are going to use the skill sets we have in-house. We are going to use this tool because it is a fourth-generation language, and we will use it across our enterprise to report on information,'" Smith said.

Amerisure BI solution won't win any beauty contests

Jack Wilson, an enterprise architect with Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co., a commercial property and casualty group, used WebFocus and the agile software development methodology to rewrite an outdated portal technology completely. It took four months and $135,000, a fraction of the $1.5 million and three-year time frame recommended by a consultant. The portal provides access to real-time information for the gamut of Amerisure stakeholders, from executives and policyholders to vendors; and security is built in from the start. When users sign in, IT knows who they are and the screens they're supposed to see.

"This is not about being pretty," Wilson said. "Pretty or fast doesn't matter, if it is not what the business wants or uses."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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