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Q&A: New Book Highlights Value of BI at Successful Companies

Some companies are hugely successful in using BI, others are not. In a new book, well-known analyst Cindi Howson uses exclusive survey data and case studies to show how companies are deploying state-of-the-art BI for competitive advantage.

"In any company, you want people who are risk takers, and people who are not risk takers – instead, they're methodical and are going to be the ones to tell you when to slow down," says BI analyst Cindi Howson, author of a new book on the value of BI and big data. In this interview, the second of two parts, Howson discusses a number of issues around BI, including how recognizing personality differences can help companies achieve success. [Editor's note: Read the first part of the interview here.]

With 20 years of experience in business intelligence and management information systems, Cindi Howson is the founder of BI Scorecard, which advises clients on BI strategy and tool selections. Her site,, provides independent research and product reviews of BI software. Most recently, she is the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Unlock the Value of BI and Big Data, which builds on her 2008 book, Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App. Howson is a TDWI faculty member and writes and blogs for TDWI.

BI This Week: Do you have a favorite or a standout in the companies you profile in the book?

Cindi Howson: We usually think of using BI to improve profitability and revenues, but I tend to like stories where BI is used for the greater good. Learning Circle is very inspiring in that sense, in their whole journey. I first met Learning Circle at a user conference -- I go to almost every vendor's user conference to find stories about both pain points and best practices. I came across Learning Circle several years ago, when they were just starting out, through an initiative sponsored by Nationwide Insurance.

Nationwide is located in Columbus, Ohio and has lots of community outreach projects, and the CEO at the time was looking at the high school graduation rates at some inner-city schools in Columbus that were less than fifty percent, well below our national average. I've been tracking the graduation rates there since -- it's a publicly reported figure -- and now they're much higher, over 80 percent.

That's an impressive jump!

Yes, and of course, it's just not data that has taken them there, but part of the story, certainly, is looking at the data in terms of what's working right and what's not.

Another interesting company story is a smaller business, Emergency Medical Associates. They operate emergency rooms in the New York metropolitan area. BI was used so successfully internally that the founders of the project spun off their own company, called Emergency Medicine BI. They are implementing dashboards in the cloud for hospitals across the nation. If the cloud didn't exist, it would be impossible for them to do that as broadly as they're doing. I love that story as well.

There's Netflix, which is just such an interesting company ... so I like that case study, too. The Macy's story highlights the whole dynamic between brick and mortar and online sales. ...

How do you gather the information for these profiles and convince companies to participate?

That's a huge challenge. One thing I'm sad about is that there are some companies whose stories I would love to write, but they're not allowed to speak about it. With my role in the industry now for 20 years, there's a lot of trust. If a customer tells me something, I'm very careful who I quote and where I share that information.

I'm eternally grateful for any customer that was allowed to go on the record, but I'm also grateful to those companies that were not allowed [to speak out] because they still encouraged me to think along the right lines and ask the probing questions even if they're not allowed to share their information.

There are also BI directors who say, yes, we have to write about this, because right now there are not enough people to fill all the jobs in BI, so the better companies get the better people. You only know who is doing great BI if they're sharing that fact. ... Some of the companies participate because they want to give acknowledgment to their workers. ... It's part of their company culture to give back to the larger BI community as well.

In your new book, you discuss the Myers-Briggs personality test and its importance in business/IT relationships. How aware do you find most companies are regarding the importance of personality in business and in IT?

They're often aware of it, but it depends. Some visionary companies that are succeeding with BI get it, they're aware of it, they do a lot of team building, and they value the differences in personalities.

Basically, in a company you want some people who are risk takers, and you want some who are not risk takers -- instead, they're methodical and are going to be the ones to tell you when to slow down. You want both. You want a balance for safety, for creativity, for everything.

There are companies that don't recognize the differences, and these tend to be the ones that have seen only slight to moderate business impact in BI. They recognize that there's a disconnect between business and IT, but they don't really know what to do about it or why it's there. From the business side, they may say, "Oh, IT is keeping us in chains and locking us out from the data and not helping us." Much of that, I think, has to do with the two different personalities I discuss.

There's also incentive, which next to culture is the second biggest challenge right now for companies [in using BI successfully]. I think that BI teams are overworked and understaffed and underfunded, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

How can addressing incentives help BI implementation?

If all you evaluate your IT and BI teams on is "least cost to serve," than they're motivated only to look at cost rather than innovation and ways in which BI can be used to improve customer service, increase revenues, boost operating efficiencies, and so forth.

Are companies still struggling with the technology side of BI? What are the challenges there?

We regularly measure that in the survey. What really surprised me this time was that data quality, which used to consistently be rated the biggest challenge, was ranked third. More important, people said, was the ability to analyze data from multiple sources and easy-to-use BI tools.

Data quality is still important, but I think it's reached an acceptable level. There's probably now a certain maturity of ERP systems and refinement of ETL logic. ///

It's interesting that ease of use came in second in terms of challenges. Why is that?

We see that idea being played out in the marketplace, with the rapid growth of easier-to-use tools such as Tableau and QlikView. Those companies are really challenging products from SAP, IBM Cognos, and Oracle, which are more complicated. ... Basically, all of the big vendors are trying to come out with products that compete with the likes of Tableau and QlikView.

Can you predict where we might be with BI in a year or two --- where you see BI going and where you'd like it to be?

There are a couple of themes that we're going to continue to see, but more so. If 2013 was the year of visual data discovery, then 2014 is going to be about cloud BI. We see cloud technologies really having taken off in terms of certain vertical applications such as Salesforce, use in payroll, human resources, and so forth, but it's lagged in the BI space. In 2014, we're going to see a lot more about cloud.

There's another thing that I'm seeing right now, and it goes to the issue of limited BI adoption rates. BI adoption has been stubbornly, stubbornly flat, stuck at an average of 24 percent or so for years. In surveys for the new book, it was only slightly higher, not even statistically relevant. It's been in that range of 24-25 percent forever. We're rerunning the survey right now and it's trending the same way.

Why is that? Is this an ease-of-use issue beyond the core group of BI users? This is where making BI as easy as Google -- something I talked about even in the 2007 book -- is so important.

In 2007, when the first book came out, there were very few solutions, and they were harder to implement. That has all changed. In just the last two months, there's a lot going on. Microsoft has a new product, Q&A, in "community preview." IBM just announced a new project, Neo, that it expects to launch in beta in the first part of the year. Then there are a few smaller vendors I've come across, such as NeutrinoBI.

Customers who use products such as Tableau and Qlikview do have higher adoption rates, so it does show that ease of use affects BI adoption. We're seeing a resurgence of the concept of BI that's as easy to use as Google. I'd like to see a time when anyone who needs to make a decision based on data can get to that data without being an expert. ... That's a vision that's been out there a long time.

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