Nothing ThereJuly 22nd, 2010 at 15:57
Every Business Intelligence (BI) platform starts out being pretty useless because it has nothing inside. It needs to be “filled up” with some content before it becomes valuable. Let me provide a few analogies to explain what I mean.
Imagine that you just bought a new GPS unit (or SatNav, if you’re from Europe). You know you’ll love it because of all the great features: it knows exactly where you are, it can talk to you, it can download traffic information, and it can calculate your speed (and direction of travel).
Now, imagine how frustrating it would be if your GPS unit didn’t come with any maps or location information. While it can tell you where you are, it doesn’t have any way to tell you how to get to your destination and it doesn’t have any way for you to look up the address of a restaurant or hotel. No one would sell an “empty” GPS device like that, because no one would buy it.
Let’s apply that same analogy to a slightly different device. How many phone numbers do you have memorized? If you’re like me, it’s far fewer than it used to be (and that’s not just because we’re getting old and forgetful either!). Years ago, we all had to memorize the phone numbers we wanted to call (or resort to looking them up in cumbersome phone books, something that today’s teens have heard of but never actually used).
Telephone manufacturers simplified the process by adding memory and redial features to our phones that we all take for granted now. If you have a smart phone, you can even synchronize with the contacts in your email system. That “content” (the lists of phone numbers) makes the device much easier to use.
What does this have to do with business intelligence? Actually, quite a lot – it turns out that similar issues exist in the realm of BI.
Lots of vendors sell business intelligence platforms. The most successful and most extensive offerings come from the “Big 4” software vendors: IBM (after they acquired Cognos), Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP (after they acquired Business Objects). There are some other key players, including MicroStrategy and open source vendors like Pentaho and JasperSoft, but most of the revenue (and, as a result, most of the industry focus) belongs to the Big 4.
Each BI platform, by default, comes with no content. It doesn’t know where your data is or how best to present it. It doesn’t know how to organize that data into Financials, Supply Chain, Payroll, Manufacturing, or similar subject areas that will benefit your business. It doesn’t know how to connect the data in ways that are meaningful for you (like linking an invoice to a purchase order or an employee to a supervisor). It’s like the GPS device with no maps or the telephone with no address book.
Of course, every BI platform comes with tools to add some content. It has wizards to point to your database and automatically load details about all your tables (and even find some complicated things like primary keys and foreign keys that help connect those tables). After running those wizards, you’ll have at least some content. However, it’s kind of like having your GPS loaded with a bunch of streets. It could connect them together, but it won’t know a freeway from a country lane, and it won’t know where Starbucks is, and it won’t know anything about speed limits or construction zones or gas stations, let alone the fastest or most direct route to your correct destination.
To make your BI platform work as smoothly as your GPS device (or your cell phone with speed dialing), you need some well-designed “content” that matches your business. For example, a budget to actual report could tell you whether you’re spending too much or an on-hand inventory report might confirm that you can fulfill a big order that just came in.
Not surprisingly, that custom “content” represents a pretty big market of its own. The industry experts call it “BI Applications” and we’ll explore that in a future post.
For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:
Your BI tool isn’t very useful if it has nothing in it. You need to fill it up with some content that will help you run your business.