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Q&A: Cool BI

Looking for the most interesting and intriguing new products in BI? We asked BI Scorecard and TDWI faculty member Cindi Howson what's hot.

What are some of the most interesting, leading (some might say bleeding) edge products and services for BI professionals? Cindi Howson is the founder of BI Scorecard, an independent analyst firm that advises companies on BI tool strategies and offers in-depth business intelligence product reviews. In this interview, she offers a preview of what she'll discuss at the TDWI World Conference in Orlando.

BI This Week: Is Cool BI just the bleeding edge stuff that only a handful of organizations are ready to embrace?

Cindi Howson: No, I started using the term "Cool BI" a few years ago to refer to any vendor that really wowed me with their vision or new product capabilities. BI doesn't have to be boring. If you can make exploring data fun, and finding insights easier, that's cool. Anything that helps improve BI adoption or time to insight makes my cool list.

What are the top three innovations that make your cool list?

It's hard to whittle it down to just three because there are about eight or so innovations I am tracking and that I cover in the half-day class. Visual data discovery is certainly cool and top of everyone's mind. It's so much more than just pretty pictures. It's about business agility, engagement, and the use of visualizations to speed the time to insight.

Graphs in reports have been around for decades. What is so revolutionary about this category?

Yes, graphs have been in BI tools since the beginning. Visual data discovery is much more than graphs, though. One of my pet peeves in this space is that any vendor who creates charts sticks the words visual data discovery on their product to ride the hype wave. Graphs alone don't define this category. Vendors in this category facilitate rapid deployment, smart graphing engines, and easy exploration. The tools complement traditional BI platforms, and, of course, we are seeing traditional BI platform vendors release their own solutions in this segment.

What are the other two?

Probably mobile BI and collaboration. Apple, largely with the iPad, has reinvigorated the Bi market and attracted the attention of executives. Some people scoff and think it's just eye candy for BI. There is a degree of sex appeal in a dashboard on an iPad, and that's important, but beyond that, having portable, mobile access to data in meetings and at a customer's' site, literally at the touch of a finger, is changing the way people work.

That change also relates to collaboration. Decisions are rarely made in isolation. What price should we set for product X? Are there promotions we should pursue? Do we have the right product mix? Such decisions are made with data and people. Bringing the two together is why I think collaboration in BI software will be part of the next big breakthrough. There is a generation of workers accustomed to tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and so on and are used to bringing people and content together as they see fit. Imagine doing that with data and work groups -- assuming security is preserved, of course -- and doing so in real time, either virtually or physically in a conference room.

Is it a glaring omission that big data did not make your top three list?

No, not glaring, but I guess bucking the hype a bit because big data seems to be the number one headline in BI this year. Heck, it's even made the cover of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Big data is important, but for most companies, it is not #1 on their list. In fact in our soon-to-be-released survey results, it didn't even find a place on the "top five" list of innovation priorities for 2013.

Big data plays a role in visual data discovery, for example, but I think sometimes big data is becoming synonymous only with Hadoop. There are other ways to tackle big data, whether using an in-memory solution or an analytic appliance. I am seeing innovations from BI platform vendors adding support for Hadoop, but we also are seeing emerging vendors such as Datameer and Karmasphere that integrate with Hadoop.

With so many innovations, how do you recommend companies prioritize?

That is one of the main things we focus on in the Cool BI class -- a framework for deciding which innovations to pursue first that considers the maturity of the technology, the value, and the positioning for particular users. Some bleeding edge technologies might have a higher reward, but there is also more risk. Not all companies or industries have the budget or appetite for investments that don't work out.

You have three events in Orlando?

Yes, a track session in the TDWI Forum (the theme is Emerging Technology Strategies for Big Data Analytics), a half-day course on cool and emerging trends at the TDWI World Conference, and the keynote on Thursday at that conference. I like to call the class a wine-tasting of innovations, because we go through a number of innovations, consider the importance, include mini demos, and assessment of how mature these capabilities are. The Thursday keynote is about some of the trends, but also about putting cool into your BI program. It's hard for people to think about such innovations when they are overworked and trapped inside a cubicle!

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