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Gartner Business Intelligence Summit: New tech vs. old-school strategy

Gartner Business Intelligence Summit attendees are focused on establishing a BI strategy, recouping investments in existing BI tools and looking into emerging technologies.

LAS VEGAS -- IT executives here at Gartner Business Intelligence Summit 2010 say they're struggling to get the business on the BI bandwagon.

Not only are they having a hard time proving the value of business intelligence tools to the bottom line and the business, but IT and the business are also not coming together to develop a cohesive BI strategy -- including an enterprise approach to key performance indicators or the choice of BI platforms and tools.

At the same time, analysts in the Gartner business intelligence group are advising enterprises to keep an eye on nine emerging BI technology areas. Many attendees said they're intrigued by this proposed new world BI order, which includes:

  • In-memory analytics
  • Cloud-based services
  • Columnar databases
  • Interactive visualization reports
  • Integrated search
  • Mobile BI applications
  • Scenario modeling
  • Data mashups
  • Analytical master data management

"We have most of the [emerging technology] areas on our radar -- especially in-memory analytics, mobile BI apps and interactive visualization, but not so much integrated search and cloud services," said Elizabeth Hartka, supervisor of application development and a member of the BI team at Constellation Energy Group Inc. in Baltimore.

A presentation by Gartner analyst Kurt Schlegel delved into what he said are areas enterprises need to start planning for as part of their BI strategy to increase user adoption of BI and empower users to access, create and share data analytics.

"This is not prohibition," Schlegel said referring to IT's desire to maintain control over BI strategy and the dissemination of data internally and externally. "'No, you can't,' is not acceptable [to the user]. You have to find a way."

And users will soon have the tools they need to bypass IT -- if they choose to -- for their data analyses needs. Microsoft's PowerPivot for Excel, for example, comes out in May and will be free to all users of Office.

With PowerPivot, users will be able to conduct complex queries by downloading up to 100 million rows of data to their desktop from many data sources, such as IBM, Oracle Corp., Teradata Corp. and SQL Server databases, or data feeds from the Web. The information can then be sliced and diced into reports or users can create BI applications on their desktops and share them with colleagues by publishing them on SharePoint.

The thought of so much data in the hands of users and the possibility of them publishing this data without some form of governance made attendees shudder during Schlegel's presentation. Empowering everyday knowledge workers in the enterprise, not just business analysts however, is the future of BI, whether that be through tools such as PowerPivot, mashups from different data sources or cloud services that let users create their own BI environments, he said. Besides, such tools are being handed out to users for free in some cases, leaving IT with little control or choice in the matter.

Yet, for many attendees, technologies such as integrated search or scenario modeling are on the horizon. In the here and now, just getting employees to use existing BI tools is a task. The percentage of enterprise users actually using BI tools -- only 28%, according to Gartner, might be closer to 15% or 20%, Schlegel estimated.

Justifying the investment in BI tools

At one large government agency, business intelligence was first installed as a means for human resources to keep track of military personnel, but it has evolved into an enterprise-wide effort, including a build-out of a large Teradata data warehouse and the installation of SAP AG's Business Objects BI platform. That was four years ago. Today, Jon Wahlberg, BI chief for the agency, is still trying to convince the business that data and the agency's BI platform is an asset.

"Just like people and property, data is truly a tangible asset, but it's difficult to put a value on it and I'm finding that we have to re-justify our investment in BI every year," Wahlberg said.

This is not prohibition. 'No, you can't,' is not acceptable [to the user]. You have to find a way.

Kurt Schlegel, analyst, Gartner Inc.

He said he's using a BI strategy approach he calls the "creeping gotchas." He and his team are proving the value of BI, department by department. With accounting, for example, they were able to automate processes that once took days or even weeks. "We were able to calculate what it costs the [financial analysts] to do a number of business processes manually -- pull all that data from multiple sources, manipulate it and put it onto spreadsheets, versus the cost of us automating it," he said.

It's an ongoing movement, and not an easy sell each time a new department is approached, he said.

At a transportation service provider, the BI lead is trying to get business leaders to sit down and develop a BI strategy with IT, but to no avail. "It's pretty shortsighted thinking right now," said the executive, who asked not to be named. "[The business] just wants reports but won't sit down with [IT] to define business processes or identify key metrics, or explain why they need a report and what they hope to get out of the report."

Progress is being made at a national health care provider, largely due to the evolution of data warehouse technology. The business is evaluating a commercial data warehouse product to replace several data warehouses the IT team has built over the years.

"We have a lot of [data warehouse] solutions, and we are pushing the organization to see the pitfalls of that kind of approach, but we have to convince them that they have to spend some money [on new technology] to make money [with BI]," said Charles Anagnostopoulos, an architect at the health care provider.

One BI vendor, or two

One session at the conference focused on the pros and cons of adopting a one-vendor approach to BI, a trend that has been on the rise in recent years, according to Gartner analyst Rita Sallam. About two-thirds of the BI market is controlled by major enterprise application and information management vendors: IBM, Oracle, SAP and Microsoft.

The one-vendor BI strategy approach is being adopted by large companies, although even in such cases, other technology is added to round out BI capabilities. "I just worked with a large financial services company that went with Oracle BIEE [Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition] because that was the vendor they were using for enterprise applications," said Joe Grossnickle, a consultant who works for a large technology consulting firm in the Southwest.

"They were a PeopleSoft firm, so OBIEE made a lot of sense for them -- but on the operational side they needed something else and went with MicroStrategy," he said. "Enterprises are still looking at their needs from a functionality perspective."

In other words, even though a large company may standardize on Oracle, there will still be business units that have different needs, and in turn need a different BI platform, he said.

The message at this year's show, at least from attendees, is that they want to stay abreast of the emerging technologies and trends -- a focus of several sessions at the conference. The reality, however, is they still need to get the basics of a BI strategy in place, starting with defining what their companies wants to measure, how to measure it and if the tools they have already invested in are the right ones for their organization.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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