BI Vendors Aim to Democratize IntelligenceBy Michael Fitzgerald | Posted 02-06-2006
Bringing business-intelligence tools to the corporate masses is the hot trend in the field. "Companies are moving these tools out of the hands of a few expert power users and into the operational mainstream," says Dan Vesset, an analyst at IDC. But doing so can create problems, as CIO Mike Green has found at United Pipe & Supply Co. His experience suggests the following tip sheet when "democratizing" BI:
Hop the training train. BI tools are like wildly powerful spreadsheets or personal databases on steroids. Though they tend to have better interfaces and tools for manipulating data than a spreadsheet, they're still not immediately intuitive for most people to use.
Green tried to address the training issue by starting UP&S University. "That was almost stillborn," he says. It did get some people trained in the basics of the tool, but quickly fizzled. Green wishes he had been much pushier about getting people trained on the tools. On the plus side, as employees have begun to see the results of the datahigher profits, more effective cost managementthey eventually clamor for training on their own.
Expect unrest. Using business-intelligence tools to let users get at data has unsettled the existing analyst staff at United Pipe. For one thing, they're afraid their jobs are going away. For another, they fear that most employees don't know how to work with data. Green recently spent the bulk of a 90-minute meeting with his lead database expert trying to soothe her concerns about the business-intelligence tools, which she thinks the company's users don't handle responsibly.
"To them, what I've created here is anarchy, because I've provided tools that give the average mortal access to the databases," says Green.
He agrees that the tools can be misused, citing a situation last year where sloppy analysis of aging data on corporate inventories produced numbers that caused United Pipe's bank, which uses the inventories as collateral, to temporarily cut the company's credit line. "Databases are complex, and we need to make sure the data is used properly," Green says. But he adds that most of the problems have come from lack of traininga problem he says is solving itself as users become more familiar with the tools.
Analyze the risks. Green says there are potential data security issues for CIOs to address with business-intelligence tools. The primary issue is data quality, which is hard to keep up with. Old data can lead to improper decision-making. Or, without safeguards in place, a clever branch employee could fudge data in the system.
Find allies. Every company has number-crunching power users who probably already use their spreadsheets or databases as low-end business-intelligence tools. Focus on those people who will appreciate how much more readily they can analyze data with a business-intelligence tool. They'll become evangelists and handle some of the basic training, to boot.
Green thinks that even his analyst team will come to accept the spread of business intelligence, over time. "We have a lot of sacred-cow eating to do," he says. "We've set in place a network of improvements, and they're changing the way we do business."