By Mike Psenka, President and CEO, eThority
In May 2008, a BusinessWeek study indicated that organizations realize
greater returns when business intelligence (BI) tools are accessible across
the enterprise. Specifically, the report found that the most significant return
on investment (ROI) comes from extending these tools to the employees on the
front lines, such as telemarketers and collections staff. And, when implemented
successfully, BI investments provide organizations with 2.4 times the market
returns of other businesses in their industry.
So, if it is simply a matter of making BI more widely accessible, why isn't
it common practice? Like most technology decisions in business, there is not
one simple answer. While some reasons involve cultural, structural or other
company-specific attributes, there are several universal reasons why companies
do not give broader access to information. Understanding these reasons will
help explain why the vast majority of BI solutions -- 87 percent, according
to a 2007 NCC BI Rapid Survey Report -- fail to meet original expectations and,
therefore, become a source of frustration rather than ROI. Most notably among
these are the limited integration of key data sources, concerns of security
and compliance issues involved in information sharing, and the difficulty of
the front-line personnel to use these overly complex systems in a meaningful
A single source of truth
Access to mission-critical data throughout an enterprise is essential in order
to fully leverage investments in information systems. Today, the data integrated
by most BI solutions is drawn primarily from central repositories like ERP and
CRM systems. Organizations relying on these systems of record often overlook
the data stored in secondary stores, such as personal spreadsheets, departmental
databases and other ad hoc or shadow systems that likely reside on individual
users' desktops. While general-ledger data is essential, the data locked within
these secondary systems often carries equivalent importance for decision-makers.
Without complete data transparency across both secondary and primary data repositories,
several problems can arise. Most frequently, organizations see accounting discrepancies
and errors. Personnel shifts also highlight problems, where the individual responsible
for managing that system leaves the organization without clearly outlining how
to access and make sense of the data within it. In some very unfortunate situations,
lack of transparency opens up opportunity for fraud and regulatory consequences.
Above all, limiting a decision maker's access to only primary data sources provides
an incomplete picture of the data and denies that individual the mission-critical
information that can lead to better strategic insights and actions.
Proper integration of all data resources into the BI solution allows organizations
to create a single source of truth -- a single access point to all data critical
in understanding the strategic whole. When organizations provide a broad group
of employees with access to this single source of truth, the organization can
truly leverage its investment in data. The complete information empowers those
workers to add strategic value to their decision making and allows for ultimate
attainment of ROI.
Maintaining security in an open environment
Increased data transparency and widespread accessibility rightly set off alarms
for management in terms of both security and compliance. Since this open access
is critical to achieving ROI, secure but open data deployment should be a required
element when evaluating BI options. Broad access to corporate data requires
multiple levels of security.
In BI, the user interface (UI), an element usually considered only for ease
of use, also can be an important component in setting usage rights that ensure
security. A user interface that allows for the contextual disclosure of information
based on an individual's job title and responsibilities plays an important role
in organizational security. These settings are pre-determined by system administrators
or supervisors before the user logs into the software for the first time based
on the need of the user to see certain data. In this way, organizations can
safely regulate who is accessing various data libraries while also making the
software more accessible to users across the enterprise. These restrictions
ensure privacy and security needs are fulfilled.
For instance, an investor relations employee may need access to some level
of HR data about the demographic mix or pay scale of overall employees. They
would be restricted, however, from seeing more detailed information, such as
an individual employee's salary.
Ironically, the practice of limiting access to information can be detrimental
to security because sensitive reports and database access are sometimes shared
behind the scenes in the spirit of helping people do their jobs better. Most
of us in business have seen myriad "confidential" reports that were
not intended for wide distribution, yet were circulated to a larger than intended
group. When access is provided but well controlled through security elements
like passwords and inherent BI features like contextualized disclosure, security
can be strategically managed and increased ROI can be achieved.
BI solutions must also include features to maintain data integrity, another
important element of security. Providing employees with broader access to relevant
information for the purpose of analysis and reporting should not extend to the
ability to change or alter the original data source. The systems of record can
be extended, sliced and diced, while the data itself remains true to its original
When access is provided but well controlled through security elements like
passwords and inherent BI features like contextualized disclosure, security
can be strategically managed. By allowing users to securely build out these
systems, they are not only better able to meet their individual job responsibilities
but they are also able to reduce or eliminate shadow systems entirely -- systems
that can lead to inaccuracy, lost information, or fraud. Both measure help to
ensure that ROI is achieved through secure, yet widespread and complete data
The barrier of complexity
Though most enterprise-level BI solutions possess powerful mining, reporting
and analysis capabilities, they are usually hidden behind complex UIs, which
overwhelm users with the number of features and functions presented, and require
IT expertise, extensive training and significant investment to use correctly.
These are the significant hidden and recurring costs of BI that must be borne
each time a new staff member is hired and involve both the cost of training
and the productivity lost during the training period.
In order to maximize ROI, organizations need to make usability a key consideration
in BI decisions. According to a 2007 Gartner study, 65 percent of the organizations
surveyed reported that BI is too complex and 69 percent reported they lack the
skills necessary to use it. If a system cannot be effectively used, a company
cannot truly capitalize on its data investments.
To empower a wider range of users throughout the enterprise, a BI platform
must possess an interface that is both customizable and self-evident to eliminate
the barrier of training -- not only for those with IT expertise but also for
first-time, non-technical users. Ideal models for user-obvious interfaces exist
in the consumer space. The iPod has a simple yet elegant UI, which requires
little to no training to use effectively. Google is one of the most powerful
search engines, yet its interface consists of a simple search box on a white
page, with various levels of search capability exposed as the user becomes more
knowledgeable. These examples showcase the level of usability necessary in a
BI solution to maximize investment.
In a BI platform, there are four key design considerations to look for that
can reduce complexity and minimize training. These include the contextual presentation
of information, progressive disclosure, adaptable settings and the combination
of visual, auditory and written cues.
Contextual presentation of information serves an important security capacity
in BI solutions, as discussed earlier. However, it also serves as a fundamental
role in the design of a user-obvious BI tool. Limiting data access to only those
libraries that are relevant to a particular user prevents the user from becoming
distracted or overwhelmed by unnecessary information.
Progressive disclosure of information and functionally is a design approach
that also avoids overwhelming users and allows them to increase their options
in direct proportion to their skill level. Additional functionality is hidden
from the screen to avoid confusion and to make the interface inviting until
the user has shown they are ready to take on more advanced elements.
Visually compelling features are another important UI design consideration.
These features, such as animation, captivate users, increasing their attention
spans. Engaged users stay and play with the BI platform and remain patient if
faced with challenges. Immediate results reinforce user interest and encourage
them to play again. The more frequently they interact with a solution, the more
their skill level advances and the more likely they are to apply the software
to their day-to-day job responsibilities.
A BI solution should allow for a certain amount of customization by the user.
For instance, interactive help tools like wizards and tutorials guide the user
experience. They are sensitive to the context in which they are used, displaying
only information relevant to the functionality on the main screen. Adaptable
features like these can be activated and deactivated depending on the user's
needs at the time, and allow users to customize the software to best suit their
skill level and preference.
Finally, visual, auditory and written cues should be employed together to confirm
and promote user actions. These cues guide users to the next step, alert them
to errors and help to redirect incorrect courses of action. A BI solution should
employ a combination of these cues to help engage the user on multiple levels.
Combined, these features fuel user interest, which leads to retention and,
ultimately, to greater adoption rates and wider accessibility. In addition to
increasing user adoption rates and enabling BI to reach a broader audience,
a shortened learning curve will also lead organizations to faster ROI achievement.
As more users begin reporting on and analyzing data with BI tools, organizations
are able to uncover potential cost-saving and revenue-generating measures more
quickly and efficiently. Tools with user-obvious elements save companies time
and money during implementation since no training is required.
BI solutions that allow for universal accessibility to all data sources without
sacrificing security empower users and strengthen ROI. With such solutions,
users can finally tap into the vast stores of knowledge that exist in every
organization, immensely improving strategic decision-making throughout the enterprise.
With greater adoption of BI tools by a broader audience for reporting and analysis,
organizations are able to expose potential cost-saving or revenue-generating
measures quickly and efficiently. Easy-to-use tools also save companies time
and money during implementation and transition since minimal training is required.
In general, users also take less time to complete the same tasks.
Intuitive software enables subject matter experts to create their own reports
and apply their invaluable knowledge easily. Additionally, increased access
to different types of data from previously untouched secondary data sources
considerably deepens organizational knowledge.
Common access-control features and enhanced UI design elements like contextual
disclosure eliminate security and compliance concerns that have previously derailed
universal access. Further, they cut down on the instances of error or, in more
unfortunate situations, fraud -- both of which cost organizations substantial
resources. Modern companies must look for ways to increase access to data and
knowledge for all employees. The right BI solution that addresses data integration,
security and usability can be the bridge to that knowledge and can result in
immediate and significant financial gain for a company that employs it strategically.
About the Author
Mike Psenka is founder, president and CEO of eThority. He has a 16-year history in business intelligence and data reporting.