The problem with business intelligence? Intelligence

freeagent1One of the really nice things about the new crop of cloudy accounting applications is that the vendors have (mostly) thought through what business people need in analytics. By that I mean they have taken the time to think about outputs as an integral part of the design. I particularly like the way (for instance) FreeAgent shows the small business person everything they need to know in a clear and obvious way. On their latest blog post, the company says it will be showcasing:

…some of our thinking on other ways we can expose meaningful insights on businesses for multiple audiences – including some awesome new ways of reporting business data.

How cool is that? The same cannot be said of the enterprise space.

A wee while back, Jim Holincheck and I were having a back and forth on the topic of business intelligence, the so-called ‘big data’ story and how we’re all going to need data scientists (however that’s defined) in order for the business to make sense of the oceans of data swilling around. Jim’s position is  the data scientist argument is a ‘cop out:’

My belief is that business intelligence/analytic applications have not been easy enough or valuable enough to the layperson to gain wide adoption.

Jim used the analogy of Turbo Tax which

…significantly increased the number of use cases where you did not need a professional to help you prepare taxes.  I do not think we have seen the equivalent of TurboTax for business intelligence/analytic applications – yet.

As a side note, I have long held the view that the SME cloud accounting players are doing exactly that. It is an argument I have used when talking to large vendors about where they need to take their cues. He observes that:

 One of my greatest pet peeves as an analyst at Gartner was watching demos of reporting tools that showed how you could drill-down to find the data or exception you needed to know or act on.  The demo person would effortlessly drill-down four or five levels and get to the result.  Most business leaders are not going to take the time to do that kind of exploration (because they may not know where to look to find this nugget like the demo person does).  However, those business leaders would be quite interested in the results of that exploration.

Jim also believes that when you can add intelligence into an application so that it delivers information contextually, then you’re onto something:

What if instead you had intelligence in the system that would interrogate all of the drill-down paths and report back interesting findings based on your role

I kind of agree/disagree with Jim on this. I”d like for instance to understand what Jim means by ‘interesting.’ Today, much reporting is based upon the idea of exceptions. Most of the work he describes can be done through the building of dashboards but then you need a small army of dashboard builders to get you to that point. Even then, I’d be surprised if such dashboards remain current because needs change. On the other hand, back in the day, Comshare as it then was, had the idea of being able to visually spin information in a virtual three dimensional world. It was insanely clever but, as with much that company tried to do, there wasn’t enough marketing muscle to make it stick.

I sense that the problem goes back even further. Large systems were never designed to get information out but to meet compliance needs and automate (as far as possible) data going in. Reporting, budgeting, forecasting and planning were all after thoughts. Hence the BI industry as it has evolved, backfilling something that in hindsight should always have been there.

The question is ‘where to next?’ The problems Jim sees are already in the wind.

Last year, I recorded a fascinating video with a technical lead from Camelot, operator of the UK’s National Lottery (see above.) At the time, they were experimenting with HANA, SAP’s high speed database. The problem they saw was that the speed at which they could return answers to queries against massive data volumes was likely to create a situation where they would be hard pressed to work out which questions need to take priority. That doesn’t require data scientists but a partnership between IT and the business to better understand how the need for certain answers best fits strategic objectives. Longer term, you can envisage a situation where questions evolve and become more nuanced.

I suspect that Jim has an answer up his sleeve somewhere. His employer, Workday, has been working on embedded analytics in its HR and financial solutions from the get go. The results I’ve seen so far are impressive. We shall have to wait and see how this story develops but it is a strong opening challenge. What do you think? Talk back in comments.

8 thoughts on “The problem with business intelligence? Intelligence

  1. Dennis

    I liked the basic premise of the article but then as I watched the video, the thing that really struck home for me as a small enterprise focused guy was that what HANA specifically and BI generally can deliver for many small businesses is such a new area that the flexibility of being able to ask these questions is in itself a bit of a revolution.

    I agree that the challenge for vendors like us at SAP and for our partners that deliver our solutions like SAP Business One to our customers is to make it easier and more intuitive for them to know which questions to ask but I believe that will come over time as they get more comfortable with BI.

    Experience has shown me that as soon as you give an entrepreneurial small biz owner answers to a set of questions, that prompts new questions and once they realize they don’t need to wait for the answers (as per the video) they suddenly get interested in learning how to ask those questions without involving IT folks and consultants.

    Our job is to ensure that we build a semantic layer in to SAP Business One that makes it easy to ask those questions and I think we have made a great start with our Analytics powered by HANA. Put that together with SAP Visual Intelligence and you have a great “do it yourself” BI solution

    Add to that the “Extreme Apps” like the Cash Flow Forecasting and Available to Promise our guys are building that sit on top of that semantic layer and you really start to get value.

    At the Asia Pacific FKOM, Vishal Sikka made the comment that what we can now do is start to leverage Business Intelligence during transactions….to me thats going to be the next wave of opportunity with BI….making sure we deliver the right insights at the right time in the transaction flow to benefit the business and the customer.

    PS…sorry to mention all the product names but I think it helps point folks to real solutions that we have today – not just slideware – if they are looking…

    • While I find this exciting stuff and am sure there is great promise, my only reservation is that somehow, tech vendors need to get much better at explaining this at a business level. Expressions like ‘semantic layer’ go right over their heads. Contextualised that way I believe Jim is right. Just get rid of the hassle factor and make it brain dead intuitive so that people don’t have to go looking for ‘stuff’ but can just get it on a role specific basis. SMEs will love that with the bonus that SAP can learn what real people want in their daily lives.

      • I agree that terms like “semantic layer” for sure go over business people’s heads and Dennis is right that vendors need to explain better at the business level. For sure I enjoyed the Camelot video from last year as he did explain how it helped in business terms.

        Inside SAP ERP today you can have a nice looking Crystal Report as part of your ERP “transaction”. I have noticed that it is easier for Accounting to look at the balances of an account inside that “embedded” Crystal Report financial statement than a SAP ERP transaction. You can have nice looking financial statements inside SAP ERP (no Hana required). Does the business understand this? Yes.

        Is this embedded BI? Yes. Easy to use? Yes. But for some reason ( I believe I know why) it doesn’t get much play/talk in the overall SAP community.

      • aaah Tammy – don’t tease…do tell more. More to the point, I think that what you are referencing is ‘reporting’ as opposed to ‘intelligence.’ Both are needed for sure but my sense is the contextual intelligence to which Jim refers is where the value lays.

      • are right…sorry for the tech speak on the semantic layer.

        I usually add an explanation of what a semantic layer is when presenting to a business owner which is as you know basically a way of simplifying how you talk to the database and that’s what we are delivering and it sounds like Jim is talking about as well…its fundamentally this….role based pre-built content – doesn’t sound as sexy as semantic layer though 🙂

      • LOL – that’s cuz you’re a nerd…but forgiven nonetheless. But seriously, I firmly believe that better outcomes can be achieved if the technology can speak directly to business needs. It’s all about (ahem) semantics…that’s one BIG reason why I believe that the big players should take cues from the startup world. They absolutely get this stuff. I’d even go so far as to say that the bog boys should invite the startups in to talk to those topics. Heck – there’s another post there methinks.

  2. Dennis:
    Yes, you could make the statement that Crystal inside ERP is more “reporting” than Business Intelligence and you would be right in sense. SAP has bundled Crystal as part of BI. Setting up Crystal inside ERP is nothing more than going up to enhancement package 5 and flipping a switch inside the system – easy to set up, easy to implement and use. My guess as to why it doesn’t get more promotion by SAP – because it’s FREE to the customer and SAP doesn’t get any new revenue from it. To me this is a great enhancement to the system and as a customer you can see the value of maintenance fees with these types of enhancements in the system.

    Ingo Hilgefort first talked about it at SAP TechEd 2009, I read about how to do it in Rich Heilman/Thomas Jung’s book, and when we went live with enhancement package 5 it was the first thing we turned on. Very nice solution.

    There are other things you could do inside SAP transactions such as having a dashboard inside your AP transaction – for instance if you are measuring the performance of a clerk, they could visually see as they are posting a transaction how their KPI’s are – there’s your contextual awareness. Thomas/Rich describe how to do this- personally I haven’t done it myself as I haven’t had the time. But it’s on my “SAP” in-house wish list to do.


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