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Cindi Howson

From the BI Scorecard Blog: Don’t Let BI Standardization Be an Excuse for Stagnation

BI has grown, with everyone from executives to casual users having an opinion on the company’s BI strategy. Is that a good thing?

I find myself having a number of conversations lately about how the new BI landscape shapes BI tool investments, both at the enterprise and department level. Maybe your company uses SAP for its ERP system, but Cognos is your BI standard. Should you switch your BI standard to SAP? Microsoft just released PowerPivot which has all the familiarity of Excel, so perhaps that should be the company ‘s new BI standard, or maybe you are implementing Oracle’s PeopleSoft and wondering if the prebuilt analytic applications that require OBI EE would meet your BI needs. Meanwhile, individual departments are clamoring for the central IT group to support easier to use and faster to deploy tools such as QlikTech QlikView and Tableau.

Vendor consolidation was supposed to make everyone’s life easier, with fewer players to choose from and more clear market leaders, but that hasn’t been the case. Stakes are higher with millions of dollars in BI investments and even more in missed decision opportunites; switching costs are high, and IT careers for investing in the wrong vendor or skill set are on the line. Why all the debates and what should you do?

All 4 mega vendors have released major new version of their product, forcing assessments of whether to upgrade or whether to switch. What is most beneficial and most cost effective really depends on the particular vendor and product. Some upgrades are more painful than others. The degree that you should re-assess also depends on how successful your current deployment is. I never recommend changing vendors for change’s sake or for minor feature improvements. Vendors will continue to leap frog each other in particular areas but their vision, execution, and philosophies are profoundly different. The most successful deployments keep a close pulse on their BI tool standards and reassess their portfolio every couple of years.

According to BI Scorecard’s 2009 Successful BI Survey, 57 percent of organizations now have a predominant BI standard. The key word here is predominant. I have never bought into an idea of an exclusive BI standard, yet it seems CIOs in particular want this simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach. If you consider the six or seven modules that make up a BI suite, no single vendor is excellent in all modules. Although smaller companies with less complex analytic requirements may be able to manage with a single vendor solution, the needs of larger enterprises are different. Beyond differences in functionality among vendors, there are also trade-offs in deployment costs as well. For example, open source vendors and smaller vendors such as Information Builders and LogiXML continue to be wise tools to assess for extranet deployments with thousands of report consumers. If mobility is key to your BI strategy, then MicroStrategy has been the most aggressive in building out those capabilities. Dashboards continue to be a battle ground for innovation and significant differences in capabilities.

Meanwhile, lines of business and departments care little about the strategic view of BI standards. They have business problems that need solving faster than central IT can address. They continue to grapple with the ongoing challenge of trying to make sense of their data, in some cases, in simply accessing their data without IT as the gate keeper. Enter visual discovery and in-memory tools such as QlikView QlikTech, Tableau Software, or TIBCO Spotfire. Should they replace the BI standard or supplement them? Or should IT squash departmental efforts to dabble with what may be nothing more than the latest fad. What about BI search tools like Endeca, or specialty mobile vendors like RoamBI and PushBI? Many of these smaller vendors have also had major new releases, becoming more robust, flexible, and enterprise-grade. All these changes give rise to departments lobbying IT to support them.

In trying to answer this last question, I find myself drawing analogies to cooking and cutlery. A Swiss Army knife, like a BI platform standard, may be less expensive than a full Henkel’s set and has a smaller footprint. But when I’m chopping celery for stuffing, I want the dedicated French chopping knife. If I’m frosting a cake, I want a non serrated spreader. The problem with BI and analytics is that we don’t quite understand the nuances of the different ways that BI tools work and the distinct ways that they empower users. “Seeing is believing” or “making sense of your data” may be good marketing lines, but they fall flat in a board room when you are asking for funding and even flatter when you are asking for official IT support. The bottom line is that larger companies need an arsenal of BI capabilities. BI standardization is good when you are trying to rationalize overlapping, redundant capabilities. It’s a bad strategy when companies assume a one-size fits all approach and fail to consider how technology and user requirements change. In the extreme, colored pencil and paper were once standard “BI tools.”

As the pace and competitiveness of business has accelerated, users need new capabilities that yield faster insights and time to value. That means periodically reassessing and expanding your BI tool portfolio.

Best wishes,
Cindi Howson,

Copyright © 2010 by Cindi Howson and BI Scorecard; reprinted by permission of the author

About the Author

Cindi Howson is a TDWI faculty member and the founder of BI Scorecard, a resource for in-depth BI tool evaluations based on exclusive hands-on testing. She is the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App, SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0, The Complete Reference and is a frequent contributor to Information Week. Prior to founding BI Scorecard, Howson was a manager at Deloitte & Touche and a BI standards leader for a Fortune 500 company. She has an MBA from Rice University.

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