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Modern BI: Performance, Services, and Information

Understanding how business intelligence delivers value can help us cut through hype, evolve our BI programs, and impact business performance.

[Editor's note: Chris Adamson's conference session, Business Information and Modern BI: Evolving Beyond the Dimensional Data Mart at the TDWI World Conference in San Diego (September 21-26, 2014) looks at how enterprises can meet an expanding list of challenges in their BI programs by focusing on business services and information. In this article, he explains BI's evolution, and how modern BI services provide a complete picture of business performance even as they change the organizational structure itself.]

By Chris Adamson, CBIP, BI Specialist, Oakton Software LLC

The technologies and processes that help us deliver on BI's promise of improved business performance have advanced by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. These advances may seem disruptive and revolutionary, but they're actually incremental and evolutionary.

To avoid getting lost in a sea of buzz and hype, it is useful to think about how BI programs deliver value. The modern BI program provides three perspectives on business performance, roughly corresponding to the past, present, and future. These perspectives are provided by different kinds of BI services, each delivering different kinds of information products. Technologies and techniques provide opportunities to deliver these services.

Understanding the Past: Reporting and Analysis

Twenty years ago, BI programs delivered value by providing reporting and analysis capabilities across multiple business domains or subject areas. This helped businesses track performance. That capability is still useful today, though we may deliver it differently.

There are new and exciting uses for information, but it still important to track what happened -- the "official record" of business activity. In BI programs of old, there were three kinds of information products: reports that provided pre-assembled static views of information, analyses or cubes that provided exploration capabilities (OLAP), and ad hoc queries that empowered users to extract information for their own purposes.

Traditionally, these capabilities were delivered via OLAP and reporting products that, in turn, fetched data from dimensional data marts. That's still a viable paradigm, but it has evolved. Today there are new delivery channels (mobile), new ways to analyze the data (visualization), new audiences (partners and customers), new kinds of data, and the possibility of skipping the data mart (virtualization).

Understanding the Present: Performance Management

The second service offered by modern BI programs is performance management. Where OLAP and reporting address the question "what happened?", performance management addresses the question "What is happening?"

Performance management leverages carefully selected business metrics to coordinate the activities of a business. Metrics that align with business objectives are made available to people at all levels of the organization using dashboards; scorecards link performance metrics with business goals. These information products help people focus their efforts on what needs attention and ensure their activities are directed toward business goals.

Many businesses embarked on performance management programs once they were "finished" with OLAP and reporting. Others started with performance management, bypassing the need for data marts -- at least at the beginning.

Today, successful performance management programs may fetch business metrics in real time, but they also allow people to dig deeper, linking dashboards and scorecards with OLAP and reporting capabilities. This has required a clear and consistent focus on the definition of the data elements involved, intersecting with the worlds of data governance and master data management. Performance management has also required a holistic approach to information delivery, integrating a variety of products within a single interface.

Understanding the Future: Business Analytics

Business analytics brings together data, statistics, and technology to produce models and visualizations. These products help people understand two things: why things happen and what is likely to happen in the future. Such insight has the greatest potential value among BI capabilities because it can be used to have a positive impact on performance.

In many organizations, business analytics capabilities develop outside the IT department and separately from the rest of their BI program. This doesn't mean it's a standalone activity, though. Business analytic programs draw from and contribute to the other BI service areas.

Analytic projects, for example, target business metrics. These are the same metrics that are monitored by the dashboards and scorecards of performance management and tracked by the data marts that support OLAP and reporting. A cross-sell model, for example, targets the cost of sales. Development of the model, too, may draw from the existing "historic record" of OLAP and reporting.

The influence is not uni-directional. The insights produced by business analytics suggest new ways to look at and track performance, adding new metrics to the business information we monitor and record. Analytics also sheds light on what kinds of unstructured data should be brought into the historic record, to further improve our ability to monitor and track performance.

One Size Does Not Fit All

While modern BI services provide a complete picture of business performance, they place different demands on the BI program's use of people, processes, and technologies. Performance management and business analytics capabilities cannot be successfully delivered the same way as reporting capabilities.

Dashboards and scorecards, for example, cannot be sustained by the same project focus that delivers data marts. A project may deliver initial performance management capability to a business area, but when new metrics are required or calculation rules must be adjusted, the business simply cannot wait for another 90-day project. Similarly, the enterprise focus that drives data mart development is inherently stifling and counter-productive to the agile needs of business analytics and performance management.

New attitudes toward the control of technology are also called for in this era of modern BI. In the past, IT may have controlled what products are used to access the data marts, for example, but innovation has made technology more powerful and accessible. It no longer makes sense to say "no" to business users who bring their own tools. Instead, it is necessary to establish the rules of engagement between business and IT, and those rules may vary depending on which tools are being used.

Modern BI is also changing the organizational structure itself. The boundary between IT and the business no longer delineates between the development and use of a solution. Technical skills exist outside IT, as do many of the BI competency centers that deliver data marts and performance management. Analytic capabilities often evolve from the other extreme, originating in business areas and maturing with the addition of a competency center. Strong BI programs balance these four groups -- business, IT, a BI competency center, and an analytics competency center.

Chris Adamson (CBIP) is a BI specialist, educator, and author with a passion for using information to improve business performance. He works with clients worldwide to establish BI programs, identify and prioritize projects, and develop solutions. As a TDWI faculty member, Chris shares over 20 years of experience with students at conferences, seminars, and onsite. A recognized expert in the field of BI, his publications include the books Star Schema: The Complete Reference and Data Warehouse Design Solutions.

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