RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Cool BI: Microsoft Outlook and BI Search

BI expert looks at two recent trends that have the potential to bring greater adoption of BI to enterprises: Microsoft Outlook integration and BI search.

by Cindi Howson

If you think BI tools have become a commodity, think again. If you think you can tick along with your current BI tool standard, never to assess your portfolio again, then you are missing out on valuable innovations that are revolutionizing the way we think of business intelligence.

I began teaching my Cool BI course at TDWI three years ago. At the time, I had been wowed by what some niche vendors were developing and wanted to both give them a voice and to get BI practitioners excited about emerging trends. There is always a lot of hype in the software industry, and it’s an ongoing challenge to distinguish those innovations that will provide lasting value from those that are merely a fad. As part of the course, I provide a way for assessing innovations; I review key issues and solutions, and follow up with mini demos conducted by myself or guest vendors.

My definition of cool is any innovation that solves two of the biggest challenges in BI: adoption and time to insight. In this three-hour course, we cover eight of the hottest innovations that address these challenges, including visual discovery, collaboration, predictive analytics, in-memory, mobile, and SaaS. In this article, I’d like to highlight two recent trends that have the potential to bring greater adoption: Outlook integration and BI search.

[Editor's note: Ms. Howson is presenting the next Cool BI course at TDWI's World Conference in Orlando; the conference theme is emerging technologies.]

It’s often said that Excel is unofficially the number one BI tool. It’s true that many power users prefer to analyze their data within a spreadsheet. However, in terms of widely used office tools, it’s hard to top e-mail. In terms of ease of use, Google and e-mail rank the easiest, according to a research report I completed earlier this year. The hardest tools to learn and to use are BI tools and transaction systems. In trying to make BI more pervasive, it’s not surprising that vendors are looking to e-mail and Google both as an interface and as inspiration for finally taking BI mainstream.

SAP was one of the first vendors to bring reporting and analytics to e-mail via its Duet product, jointly developed with Microsoft and released in 2006. For various reasons, some licensing and some technical, this product seems to have little market traction. More recently, SAS released a new version of its Add-In for Microsoft Office that now has tight integration with Outlook. The integration goes far beyond simply scheduling reports to be distributed via e-mail. Outlook is used as a navigation tool to access all reports and dashboards. Folders on the SAS BI server automatically appear as folders in Outlook. From within Outlook, users can view, refresh, or send a report to another person.

Security is maintained by the SAS BI server. There is a nifty gadget pane that lets users quickly view their most important business indicators. Leveraging the Outlook interface seems to me to be one of the smartest ways to give users fast access to their most important data. In the Cool BI course, we’ll be discussing the value and the limitations with this approach and SAS will be demoing their latest release.

Another vendor that is innovating in this way is APOS Solutions. They recently released a module named Outlook Synergy that allows SAP BusinessObjects customers to navigate Crystal Reports, WebIntelligence, and Xcelsius content in a similar fashion.

Google is one of the reasons the Internet became mainstream. Prior to this simple search interface, it was hard to find information on the Web, and it was an environment used primarily in academia. Now, it’s a part of daily consumer, social, and business life, so when Google first released OneBox for Enterprise in 2006, BI vendors hoped integrating with it would bring the same market adoption and ease of use to BI that it brought to the Web. Four years later, only a handful of customers take advantage of BI search. Among the barriers are awareness and deployment complexity.

As this innovation area gains understanding and simplicity, I think BI search will become more common within the BI tool portfolio. Decision-makers spend valuable time simply trying to find relevant data, whether in a report or dashboard or a new data source. SAP BusinessObjects, IBM Cognos, and Information Builders were early innovators who brought search capabilities to the existing BI platform, integrating with Google OneBox as well as other enterprise search solutions (such as OmniFind and Lucene).

However, one niche vendor that takes a slightly different approach to BI search is Endeca. In its upcoming release, Endeca Latitude combines both search and a columnar database to allow users to search, navigate, and analyze information that is in the data warehouse or in transaction systems and document files. It’s possible, for example, to view statistics on employees such as head count in a certain region and average salary that came from a payroll system, along with years of advanced education and languages spoken that come from resumes.

SAS, Endeca, and Tableau will be previewing their capabilities as part of the Cool BI course next month.

As the list of innovations is long, and yet time and budget is tight, attendees vote on the innovations they are most likely to pursue in the next year. Be sure to check my blog or follow me on Twitter to find out what comes out on top next month. Better yet, attend the course in person!

Cindi Howson is a TDWI faculty member, an analyst, and the founder of the BIScorecard Web site.

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