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Business Intelligence Decisions and Directions

By October 31, 2011Article

Editor’s note: In this SandHill interview, Donald Farmer of QlikView discusses how enterprise mobility, social media trends and collaboration are reshaping business intelligence solutions. He also shares change management tips to ensure best outcomes with BI solutions. Obviously social media trends are impacting many aspects of business. What impact is it making on business intelligence solutions?

Donald Farmer: People are becoming more and more engaged with each other in social media through the medium of software. Twitter and Facebook are obvious examples of that. We’re communicating and collaborating far more widely and far more diversely than we’ve done previously. I think this social collaboration capability is actually pretty important.

Collaboration is central to business intelligence, but BI is also central to collaboration. I’ve been in BI so long that I remember when we called it decision support. And that’s actually a much better name. Today we have BI and business discovery, but ultimately it’s still about supporting people in making decisions.

And the truth is, unless you’re a sociopath, you don’t make decisions on your own. You make decisions in collaboration with other people. So collaboration is essential to decision support. Collaboration and business intelligence are very symbiotic. In order to collaborate effectively, you need the right information at the right time and in the right format with the right structure to help you make your decisions. How is collaboration baked into your QlikView product?

Donald Farmer: We’ve combined the social media collaboration trend with feedback from our customers on how they want to annotate and communicate using our product. QlikView 11 enables people to collaborate on the process of discovery, rather than just the results of discovery.

I compare it to being able to take your colleagues with you on a journey instead of traditional collaboration tools where you just send postcards back home when you see something interesting.

You could open up a collaboration session with someone else in real time and, in that shared environment you would both look at a workbook or charts you’re working on or selections you’re making in the process of discovery. So we have collaboration throughout the entire process rather than in just one place, and there are numerous entry points to collaboration. It’s much the same as the human mind.

Our minds work associatively rather than deductively. It’s not like we sit down and logically go through every possibility. Our minds tend to jump around and associate things, and it’s the same with our software. How does this new aspect of collaborating on the process of business discovery facilitate analytics?

Donald Farmer: That’s actually an important aspect. Traditionally, collaboration and business discovery happened in the one place where the data resided such as a data warehouse or analytics tool. Everybody knew that was where to go to find things.

But increasingly there is more than one data source and more than one type of data that people want to use for discovery.

We have a lot of OEM partners that have their own software products but need to add analytics to those products. For instance, OEM partners building real estate applications or building inventory management applications are under pressure to provide intelligence on the application data to their users and combine the data with external data sources. A real estate software vendor may have an application that manages leasing information but may need to do a mashup of that market valuation data in order to calculate a potential sales price. The mashup requires accessing data from two different systems.

The human mind not only works by associating things but also by comparing things. So we’ll bring that experience to the front and leverage it to improve analytic power. Aren’t companies experiencing quite a bit of change resistance or difficulty in managing the change, especially companies with older people who are not used to this kind of collaborative communication and collaborative decision making?

Donald Farmer: Yes, but change happens in two directions: bottom up and top down. The bottom-up direction is where people like my 25-year-old son come into the world of business. As he says, social media is just a medium in which he lives like a fish lives in water.

That kind of cultural change happens relatively slowly because young people coming into business with these new attitudes are not the decision makers or strategic influencers and are not setting strategy. Companies will react to them but will change business culture over time rather than quickly or dramatically.

What happens to really change things is when the very senior executives get it. When they got iPads for Christmas, their companies suddenly had to develop “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policies because of the senior executives who had that influence. It’s very easy to say to a junior person, “No, we’re not going to support your iPhone.” But when a senior executive comes in and says to the IT department, “I want to use my iPad,” then the IT department jumps.

The same thing is happening with social media and social collaboration. The bottom-up influence is there, but it’s long term and gradual. Where you see dramatic change is when senior executives get it and start to engage in that process themselves and say they find it useful and want to roll it out across the company so everybody can have the advantages. Does your company do anything to help support this change management regarding social collaboration in business intelligence? Do you help customers understand how to make this a more pervasive user experience?

Donald Farmer: The way in which we help them make collaboration pervasive is to make it part of the overall experience. Our Access Point application is like Facebook for decision making or for decision support. It’s a place where users can share documents with comments and threads and those kinds of social interactions; they see who’s using documents and who’s commenting on them. How is the trend of the accelerating pace of enterprise mobility adoption impacting business intelligence?

Donald Farmer: We’re watching the mobile device market and the mobile device capabilities very, very closely because we know they can change very quickly. The iPad kind of came out of nowhere as a leading device. It was on nobody’s radar and then suddenly we had this major significant business tool. And that’s the sort of thing that we have to be very aware of – where people are going. Do you have any suggestions for how enterprises can deal with the rapid change of pace of mobile and other technologies? How can organizations make wise decisions in a cost-effective way with everything changing so quickly?

Donald Farmer: That’s definitely a challenge, and I wish we had the perfect answer. There are three levels to managing through this challenge. The first is to focus on immediate benefits. Traditionally, business intelligence projects were big and took months, if not years, to implement. They were driven by IT departments that had to spend a lot of time gathering requirements, building prototypes and building large complex infrastructures before they could start to give business value. Those days are over.

Companies need to focus on getting immediate business value. And that means they need tools that are capable of building very focused apps – small, personal, and focused on a specific subject area. They can be built in weeks rather than months, and in days in some cases, to give immediate business value.

Being able to build data-driven apps very quickly is the only way companies can respond to rapidly changing business requirements.

Another level is to keep a strategic eye on the broader trends in the industry. And that means that they need to make time to look up from the trenches instead of spending the day focusing on immediate production issues and operational issues. It’s important to keep in touch through blogs and events, etc. to see those broader industry trends.

The third level is to enable collaboration. It’s important to tap into the collective intelligence and collective decision making of your company, not to rely just on one or two individuals or your own thoughts. Collaboration is essential. In what ways do you believe the business intelligence market will change over the next two years?

Donald Farmer: I think the most important change will be the ubiquity of mobile devices. Of course there will be technical changes – greater capabilities, more memory available on the devices, more computing power, and visualizations will be ever more richer and beautiful and more interactive. Those things are very important. But the mobile device ubiquity will be the biggest influencer on the way in which we work.

Howard Dresner of Dresner Advisory Services reckons that within three years 25 percent of all business intelligence will be done only on mobile devices. Users will not have BI on their desktop, just on their mobile device.

That’s a reflection not so much of the technology as the ubiquity of it. This is going to be pervasive. Everybody’s going to be using mobile devices.

I think the combination of social collaboration, richer analytics and mobile is going to be a really interesting trifecta for the future.

Donald Farmer is VP, Product Management for QlikView. He blogs at about social collaboration as well as psychology and things that give a broader view of industry trends.