The Invisible Hand of BI

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While software developers consider their business intelligence (BI) applications to be successful if they fulfill the core requirements, a much more meaningful gauge of success is how extensively the information derived from those applications is used. The more consumers of information you have, the greater the value you will obtain from your BI efforts.

Many people in your organization can benefit from current analytical information, whether they work in customer service, shipping, manufacturing, finance, or a host of other departments. How do you achieve this vision? You have to make information relevant to the needs of the moment, and you have to present that information to users in a familiar way.

For example, a call center representative might receive a screen pop advising her about which products to promote to a customer who is on the line at that moment, based on that customer's recent transactions and credit history. An order entry clerk might depend on insight from a BI system to spot orders above a certain value, then recommend a premium supplier based on current promotions and availability.

If these workers have to run historical reports to find this information, it generally slows down the process, and the opportunity is lost. Instead, the information should be automatically selected, tailored, and delivered in a usable form, right then and there. This is the "invisible hand" of BI, working behind the scenes to keep users in touch with information that impacts their sphere of activities.

Of course, BI technology must be presented to users in its simplest form in order to achieve these goals. Most people aren't interested in firing up an ad-hoc query tool or designing a report to find information, no matter how user-friendly these tools may be. Instead, they want to receive information as part of their familiar business processes. That information should be accessible through the programs they use every day such as e-mail, search engines, write boards, web browsers, and spreadsheets, not via BI "tools" that are external to all of them.

Boosting revenue and productivity

Another way to gauge the success of your BI initiatives is the degree to which those initiatives reduce costs or increase revenue. Some BI applications create profit centers, as Moneris Solutions learned after amassing billions of Visa, MasterCard, and debit card transactions in its data warehouse. Moneris created a BI application that allows merchants to analyze this transaction data to better understand consumer-buying patterns -- a service those merchants are willing to pay for.

A third success metric involves using BI to accelerate or streamline business processes. In this instance, the Invisible Hand guides users to relevant information as they need it, or simply makes connections as part of an automated workflow. This is a push-based rather than a pull-based paradigm.

While analytical BI systems are typically initiated by users querying a database or running a report, process-driven BI systems are triggered by the business process itself. For example, when an order-entry system receives an order or a manufacturing process updates a bill of materials, these events might notify other applications within the enterprise. In some cases, users are asked to supply input. In other cases it is automatic: the BI application listens for events, detects them, propagates them, and determines which actions to take according to conditions that have been determined in advance.

Eyeing a new horizon of possibilities

Thanks to changes in the mobile computing landscape, BI technology is becoming progressively more accessible and effective out of the office as well. The screens on mobile devices are steadily getting better, making it easier to connect people to information wherever they are. Similarly, the simplicity of search technology, when combined with the insight of BI, is enabling workers to tap into corporate data sources in new ways, even when they don't know exactly what they are looking for.

For example, a law enforcement officer might want to locate all references to a vehicle license plate number across all databases, transactions, and dynamically generated reports, or a sales rep might want to know everything his company has done with a particular customer in the last month. By using embedded integration technology, the BI environment can take these searches to a whole new level. These users might begin with free-form, Google-style searches, and then reach into the associated transactions and databases to find additional information, correlating events as they go along.

About the Author

Bringing nearly two decades of software industry experience to his role as Vice President of Sales Support Services for Information Builders, Kevin Quinn oversees the development of strategic marketing for all product lines and the field event organization, which is responsible for organizing Information Builders innovative product workshops and seminars. He can be reached at

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