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BI Use in a Holding Pattern

Historically, a shockingly small proportion of potential information consumers has actually used BI. It's beginning to seem as if that isn't ever going to change.

If use is a reliable indicator of success, enterprise business intelligence (BI) is no overnight sensation. Historically, a shockingly small proportion of potential information consumers has actually used BI. It's beginning to seem as if that isn't ever going to change.

The go-to source for statistics on BI adoption is's annual Successful BI Survey.

For a decade now, founder Cindi Howson, a principal with ASK Consulting and a long-time TDWI faculty member, has helped shine a light on that most inconvenient of truths: namely, that BI adoption basically refuses to budge.

More worrisome, notes Howson, is that fewer companies say that BI has had a significant business impact. "BI success rates have remained flat since the survey was first conducted in 2007. However, the portion of customers saying BI has delivered significant business impact declined in 2013 by six percentage points to only 28% and is the lowest since the survey began," she writes.

"While there are some very successful and impactful BI deployments, the majority are stuck in the middle, with only slight to moderate success and business impact."

Trends have come and gone. Self-service was supposed to redeem BI a decade ago, much as it's supposed to do today. Visual BI discovery is a promising new innovation, as are mobile connectivity (along with mobile-first BI app development) and BI-in-the-cloud; software vendors in and out of BI are paying more attention to the user experience (UX), as well as borrowing from concepts in ecology (e.g., information foraging) and entertainment ("gamification") to try to boost usability and adoption. Over time, these efforts may bear fruit. In the here and now, their impact is debatable.

To wit: BI adoption can't seem to crack 25 percent: in 2013, for example, it stood at 22 percent of all employees, which was actually down from last year, when the figure was 24 percent.

One good thing, Howson stresses, is that mobile BI does seem to be helping: "BI adoption as a percentage of employees remains flat at 22 percent, but companies who have successfully deployed mobile BI show the highest adoption at 42 percent of employees."

It isn't realistic to expect that all of the employees in a given organization are good candidates for BI. Howson and take this into account, however: for example, in last year's survey, respondents estimated that, on average, just over half -- 54 percent -- of employees could potentially use or consume BI. In 2013, that number stood at 50 percent. The upshot is that BI could be reaching -- and, notionally, benefitting -- more than twice as many users as it does today.

Defining Success

As in year's past, the Successful BI Survey takes a nuanced look at what it means to be "successful" at BI. When asked to rate the success of their BI deployments, respondents in 2013 answered much as they did in 2012 -- and in 2011, for that matter.

Just one-quarter (25 percent) rate their BI deployments as "very successful," according to Howson. A majority of respondents reported "moderately" (48 percent) or "slightly" (24 percent) successful BI deployments, while just 3 percent assessed their BI as "mostly a failure."

On the other hand, "BI success" doesn't always correlate with "BI impact" -- not in the minds of survey respondents, at least. According to Howson, 28 percent of respondents indicated that BI had made "a significant contribution to business performance." By the same token, just 25 percent adjudged their BI deployments as "very successful." Wouldn't it stand to reason that BI which had made a "significant" contribution to business performance was, by definition, very successful?

Howson hazards an explanation. "While there is a strong correlation between BI success rates and BI's contribution to business performance, it is not exact," she says, referring to this disparity. "The difference in the survey average for success and impact was smaller this year than in previous years. That the impact is higher than the success rate suggests that respondents associate success with technical and organizational challenges not yet overcome."

In some cases, too, the criteria respondents are using to rate the success of their BI programs tend to be more qualitative to than quantitative.

"Qualitative measures continue to be used more widely than hard business benefits. Better access to data ([cited by] 62 percent [of respondents]) was the main measure of success, followed by increased operating efficiency, claimed by 54 percent of respondents, and support to manage day-to-day business (51 percent)," she writes. "Decreased reliance on manual spreadsheets is another measure of success in 47 percent of companies surveyed. BI is often cited as a way to improve sales, but only 35 percent say this was a measure of success."

Take a gold-standard quantitative measure such as ROI, for example: its use has continued to decline, say Howson, from almost half (43 percent) of respondents to just 24 percent last year. "While measures such as return on investment (used by 24 percent of respondents), cost savings (29 percent), and percentage of active users (27 percent) are more objective measures, they appear to be used less frequently," she points out.

The Successful BI Survey runs to almost 60 pages and deals with much more than BI usage. Other topics covered include a discussion of (and recommendations regarding) factors for technical success; executive support and the success of BI projects; and organizational factors.

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