The Real Value of Business Intelligence Search
By Wayne W. Eckerson, Director of Research and Services, TDWI
I must admit I’m a little skeptical about BI search. Ever since Google launched the Google Search Appliance with the OneBox for Enterprise interface to enterprise applications, BI vendors and others have been falling over themselves to partner with Google. The reasons are obvious. Who wouldn’t want to team up with the hottest brand in high tech? And who wouldn’t want to make information available to end users via the simplest and most ubiquitous interface on the Web?
BI search via Google OneBox makes it very easy for casual business users to search reports, files, records—in short, any object within an enterprise application
that interfaces with Google OneBox. (According to Google’s Web site, Information Builders, Cognos, SAS Institute, Oracle, Employease, Salesforce.com, and NetSuite have formed OneBox partnerships, with others on the way.) With the OneBox interface, Google’s partners can customize the search results to deliver dynamically generated reports and apply security so individuals see only the results they are authorized to view.
Symptom of a Problem. Despite its obvious advantages, BI search is a symptom of a problem. BI search is great when you don’t know what you’re looking for, or can’t find what already exists. But if the average business user needs a search tool to find basic information or reports about the processes they manage on a daily basis, there is something wrong with the business!
Smart organizations already know exactly what information business users need to manage core business processes. And they set up their information systems to deliver these insights to users on a right-time basis using dashboards and scorecards. These organizations do not want users to waste time searching high and low for information that should already be at their fingertips.
Case in Point. Several years ago when OLAP and ad hoc query tools were the rage, I was surprised to find that the head of marketing at a major casino with a reputation as a leading adopter of data warehousing and BI tools insisted on delivering static reports to his field marketing managers. His rationale was, “We know what information our managers need to run their operations, so we give it to them. We don’t want them wasting time submitting queries.”
Since then, I’ve believed that it’s better for organizations to push information to users rather than force them to find it. In well-run organizations, business users come to work in the morning, log in to their computers, and see a dashboard and/or scorecard that displays key metrics that show how their performance stacks up against strategic objectives and goals. After one glance, they know what needs immediate attention and can drill down to shed light on the issue and take steps to address it.
The Pendulum Swing
Companies that rely on BI search as a next-generation ad hoc query tool are missing the point. The pendulum is swinging away from BI self-service, and moving instead to the customized delivery of information. While BI search is a great ad hoc query tool for general business users, do you really want them submitting ad hoc queries all day? Wouldn’t it be better to give them role-based reports, dashboards, or scorecards that deliver all the information they need to do their jobs at a glance or within several clicks?
The Role of BI Search. Nevertheless, BI search will fill an important gap in every organization’s BI portfolio. For one thing, not all organizations understand their business processes well enough to deliver information and insights proactively via dashboards and scorecards. In addition, some organizations compete in highly volatile markets where strategies, plans, processes, and roles change rapidly, placing a premium on information discovery rather than information delivery. Also, business users play many roles within their organizations. In some capacities, they must manage well-defined processes that have fairly static information requirements, but in others, they may engage in more entrepreneurial activities that require ad hoc query or search capabilities.
Finally, business often moves so fast that we lose things quicker than we can find them. A BI search tool can accelerate “time to recover” what we’ve lost or misplaced by moving too fast, doing too much, and trying too hard (although I can almost hear Peter Drucker saying that these are symptoms of an organization out of control!).
Poor Man’s Data Integration
Perhaps the most overlooked benefit of BI search is its ability to substitute as a data integration service. Rather than purchase complex middleware and hire expensive systems integrators, companies can implement Google OneBox to pull together records and objects from multiple systems for little money, including both structured (databases) and unstructured (files, text, images, video, etc.) sources. (Google Search Appliance starts at $30,000 to index 50,000 documents.) Although Google OneBox can’t move records between applications, and users have to manually “piece together” information from potentially dozens or hundreds of search results, it may be sufficient to meet certain data integration requirements. It is a cheap way to bridge the formidable gulf that currently exists between structured and unstructured data.
Perhaps even more interesting, data integration vendors such as iWay Software (a subsidiary of Information Builders) can interface their application and data adapters to Google OneBox, feeding Google with transactions as they occur. By indexing events on the fly, Google OneBox can deliver decision makers up-to-date information in response to keyword searches. So, when tied to key middleware components, Google OneBox can support real-time decision making.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Google-ization of BI. Some of this is hype, as BI vendors clamor to jump on Google’s bandwagon. But some is legitimate, since the Google OneBox for Enterprise finally provides an ad hoc query interface that general business users find easy and intuitive. While BI search should never be used as a primary BI tool, it makes a wonderful supplement to the information organizations should be delivering to users on a timely basis via dashboards and scorecards. Perhaps the best use of BI search is not for BI, but as a virtual data integration infrastructure that ties together structured, unstructured, and real-time data behind an intuitive, keyword interface.
Wayne W. Eckerson is the director of research and services for TDWI. He has 17 years of industry experience and has covered data warehousing and business intelligence since 1995. Eckerson is the author of many in-depth reports, a columnist for several business and technology magazines, and a noted speaker and consultant. His book, "Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business," was published by John Wiley & Sons in 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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