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Dresner’s Point: Do You Need to Rethink your Business Intelligence Tools Approach?

By March 6, 2013Article

At one of my recent Friday tweetchats on what’s happening in business intelligence, I asked participants (business users, vendors and consultants) about their BI aspirations for this year. One person tweeted a hope for bringing real visualizations to corporate BI using tools. Oddly enough with the current focus of software vendors on developing innovative BI tools with a lot of oomph, we plunged into an assessment of the longstanding, proverbial “bane” of BI: Excel.

But if you look closely at this discussion, you’ll see how it dovetails into a key aspect of BI trends — the approach to adopting BI tools demonstrates the potential outcome of success or failure in making better business decisions based on BI information. Here’s the beginning flow of that tweeted discussion:

  • Real visualizations and Excel is an oxymoron. The defaults are terrible and have to be shoehorned into real visuals.
  • But millions of people (more than 50 percent of BI users if you include PDFs of Excel reports) benefit from reading Excel sheets. No question that its use is pervasive.
  • It’s really the BI gateway tool and most users probably start there. It’s even the front end to some BI products.
  • Data discovery via Excel seems to relegate BI to data warehouses and reports.
  • As technology evolves, the industry devises alternative ways to address the expanding data footprint. And Excel is very limiting with unstructured data.
  • Experimenting with Excel doesn’t guarantee users will graduate to “hard” business intelligence.
  • It’s always good to remember that Excel is a tool and, like any tool, people can use it well or use it poorly.
  • Business users want to control the narrative, but existing BI tools don’t allow a story to be crafted. Hence the clinging popularity of Excel in BI.

That led to grappling with the purpose of business intelligence tools. Since BI’s objective is to deliver actionable perspective, tools are are an enabler.

So, what can go wrong? From their own experience and observations, participants tweeted that no tool can provide definitive insight. Users need to create the questions around which the tools discover data.

The flip side of that view, some tweeted, is that figuring out the right questions is a trial-and-error process. It’s very key to BI success and therefore the reason for tools. BI tools enable users to fail faster, thus the tools help them get to the right questions.

But the tweetchat group also observed a wrinkle in that process: many software vendors and corporate BI managers mistake tool training for analytics training. Use the tool and, voila, it will produce insightful information. Not so, they tweeted. Tools facilitate discovery. But the best information comes from curiosity and “what if” questions, not from learning tools techniques. And you can’t teach curiosity.

One of the tribe punctuated the discussion with this tweet: “The fool with a tool is still a fool.”

Bottom line: The information that business intelligence yields can help an organization make better decisions improving its competitiveness and making it more successful. But no particular BI path guarantees success. To some extent, success necessitates some art as well as science. BI must not only capture knowledge but also inspire a desire for knowledge.

Organizations must view BI efforts as a strategic imperative. Therein lies a crucial issue that goes beyond a strategic planning function. The issue: can the management team conceive executable strategies? In many cases, internal constraints render strategies as just unattainable ideas.

We must recognize that BI tools can help filter an overwhelming stream of data and help visualize the information. But without the right people to come up with the right questions and then analyze the information, it won’t result in better business decisions. Success depends on both the right tools and the right people within a particular context.

As one of the tweetchat members wisely observed, it’s like driving a submarine. You need data input, but in a submarine you have no windows to verify the validity of the data to a particular situation. So you need a person with the right skills to be able to adjust accordingly.

Howard Dresner is president, founder and chief research officer at Dresner Advisory Services, LLC, an independent advisory firm. He is one of the foremost thought leaders in Business Intelligence and Performance Management, having coined the term “Business Intelligence” in 1989. He has published two books on the subject, The Performance Management Revolution — Business Results through Insight and Action, and Profiles in Performance — Business Intelligence Journeys and the Roadmap for Change. He hosts a weekly tweet chat (#BIWisdom) on Twitter each Friday. Prior to Dresner Advisory Services, Howard served as chief strategy officer at Hyperion Solutions and was a research fellow at Gartner, where he led its Business Intelligence research practice for 13 years.

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