Dark Clouds on BI Horizon

ART02x - edited feature imageI shouldn’t go to BI tool demonstrations anymore. Don’t get me wrong. Advancements in the BI/analytics tool space are nothing short of remarkable. As a techno BI geek, I marvel at the sheer “what could be” in business intelligence and decision support arenas. However, the message that comes with the technology is what I believe to be a looming lose-lose-lose proposition. I’ll discuss the potential lose-lose-losers shortly.

Self-service BI/reporting has been promised now for decades and I believe two converging forces are on the brink of making the hype a reality, with one of those forces being the technology itself.

Natural language queries, point and click, drag and drop, although around for some time, are in my opinion now reaching a level of maturity and ease of use that put tremendous analytical power in the hands of business decision makers; this is potentially a really good thing. Speaking of business decision makers, the second converging force I believe making BI self-service a reality is the technical sophistication of the business folks themselves.

Think about some fun facts… Microsoft Excel for the Mac was first released in 1985— 1987 for Windows (anybody else feeling ancient?). That’s nearly 30 years of a fairly sophisticated number-cruncher and, I’ll contend, application development environment in the hands of individuals outside of traditional computer science related disciplines. Shortly after its release, Excel found its way onto the curriculum of accounting and business courses outside of the Computer Science department. Another good thing… maybe. Combine that with the fact that the average age of CEO’s entering office in 1995 was 50.4 years (according to Forbes Magazine) and dropped to 48.8 in 2001, then the likelihood that in 5 years most senior executives have been exposed to Excel-like technology before they even started their first job is quite high. Combine all that with the fact that the average height of a CEO is 6’0”…okay, not germane to the discussion but a fun fact of my research, nonetheless.

With the evolving maturity of our tools, combined with the fact that our most senior BI consumers are becoming increasingly tech savvy, we have a recipe for true self-service business intelligence. You should probably be asking yourself… “so with the alignment of these converging forces, why all the ‘dark clouds on the horizon’ and ‘lose-lose-lose proposition’ talk?” “And why do my ulcers seem to flare-up when the invite to a BI vendor demo shows up in my inbox from my client?” Well, as alluded to in the opening of this article, it all has to do with messaging. Primarily the messaging of the vendors, but equally the lack of messaging from the very IT professionals who should know better. Don’t get me wrong this is not meant to be a beat up the vendor (easy target) article. I firmly believe they are one of the potential losers by propagating the messaging they insist on, well…propagating.

The Message from the BI Vendors 

“You don’t need IT people anymore.” Ahh, let that one sink in for a minute. I can almost hear the shrill sound of actual budgets being cut. “You don’t need modelers.” “You don’t need ETL developers, testers, architects…” Face it, if it’s IT human resource overhead for BI/reporting…YOU DON’T NEED THEM. In my opinion, it is the sophistication of the emerging breed of BI tools that allows this seductive message to make its way into the boardrooms and is truly counterproductive to the vendor’s long-term objectives. That is if the objective of the vendor is long-term recurring revenue opportunities, not to mention satisfied customers.

Here are some real vendor comments (granted some tongue in cheek) in actual BI tool demonstrations:

  • “You don’t need to call IT anymore.”
  • “Those guys are busy, you can do your own reporting completely on your own.”
  • “You can connect different sources of data yourself without picking up the phone or filling out an IT request form.”
  • “Our tool is ultimately flexible… more like Travelocity or Priceline… you simply input some criteria and up pops the data you’re looking for.”

I believe these messages are made possible and their reception plausible by the sheer ignorance of data management and data quality principles. Granted, some, if not most, of this messaging comes from sales reps (expected), however some is perpetuated by folks who really should know better.

Let’s look at one quick and scary example:

When pressed on who would organize the data to make it “tool ready”, the sales guy responds with “you don’t need to model the data anymore.” He contended that their tool was so smart it could recognize similarities in data element names from different sources and join them to provide a common report across systems. Essentially, if you have a “customer id” in system A, the tool would join with “customer id” in system B. Probing further: so when system A has “customer id” and system B has “client num,” would the tool be smart enough to recognize and join the customer data? No problem… the tool allows the business user to manually make those connections that the tool doesn’t automagically recognize. Sounds like data modeling to me, and likely by folks least equipped to do it. The ability to inadvertently connect a customer id to a part number was equally possible, but I’m assuming not recommended. So let’s discuss the potential losers in the seductive message of tool driven self-service BI.

Loser Number One – IT Professionals 

Likely overworked to begin with, the IT folks may look at the flashy new tool as a way to simply get demanding customers off their backs. After all, the vendor just said “you don’t need IT” anymore. So cut them a dump of the data, set up a few logins and cross the BI Project off the to-do list. But when the data is suspect and doesn’t match expected results, it just became IT’s problem again. They (IT professionals) have to justify why the numbers don’t add up in “their” (don’t get me started on stewardship) data.

Loser Number Two – Business Decision Makers 

Decision makers realize that information is vital to the decision making process and the alternative –gut feel– is a recipe for disaster. Their thirst for more and more data is almost unquenchable, but for good reason. Data can truly be a competitive advantage. Bad data, in my opinion is worse than gut feel or coin flips where you might at least have a 50/50 chance of getting it right.

They go from one disappointment to the next with the hope that the next flashy demo will be the answer…an expensive proposition. So after they blame IT, and the tool is properly (or improperly) vilified, the RFP’s fly and the BI tool evaluations commence.

Loser Number Three – The BI Vendors

As mentioned earlier, this isn’t a hit piece on BI tool vendors. Honest. The technology is incredible and the fact that (in my experience) most customers use only a fraction of the underlying functionality, it is truly unfortunate that these tools are purchased, implemented, and jettisoned with such alarming regularity.

Quick true story: I was working with two very large corporations separated by a four lane highway. Both in very similar industries, similar in size, etc. One moving from Cognos to Information Builders, while 900 or so yards away, Corporation B was moving from Information Builders to Cognos. In neither case was the tool to blame for their lack of data analytics success.

Recurring revenue streams are forever lost not because the tool couldn’t perform, but in many, if not most cases because the data was not structured in a way that would make the data or the tool useful.

What’s the answer and how do we all get off of the crazy train?

Fortunately, the answer is simple. Not necessarily easy, but in my opinion simple. It is simply the investment in, and the application of, discipline. Discipline in data architecture. Discipline in modeling. Discipline in meta data management and, maybe most importantly, discipline in data governance and stewardship.

These disciplines and the techniques for sound data management are well documented, going back to when Codd first employed mathematics to represent relationships among data entities. Unfortunately, these techniques have become passé, old school and boring. Consultants (including myself) need new buzzwords to continue to sell their wares. The techniques and disciplines of the 1970’s and 80’s can’t be relevant given their lack of newness. I couldn’t disagree more.


Let’s reflect on what got us here in the first place and end with what I believe is a message of hope and mutually beneficial win-win-win scenarios. The title of this article “Dark Clouds on the BI Horizon” can rightly be interpreted as warning of bad things to come on our current glide-slope of data analytics self-service.

But “dark clouds” can also carry much-needed rain to information parched organizations. The same attributes that raise the alarms could, if properly applied, yield nuggets of gold locked in our databases and operational systems. By applying sound data management principles to exciting technological advancements in the BI tool market, I truly believe the promise of self-service BI and analytics can be realized. Ultimately leading to IT credibility, vendor longevity and, most importantly, better business decisions through the use of high quality informational assets.

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Joseph Maggi

Joseph Maggi

Mr. Maggi is a technology professional with a demonstrated track record of exploiting technology to solve business problems and enhance the bottom-line for both public and private sector clients. He has been involved with data modeling and relational design for more than 20 years and has taught formal data modeling courses to dozens of Fortune 500 companies. His pragmatic approach to business intelligence and analytics has helped organizations realize tangible value from technological investments. Mr. Maggi is a founding managing partner with Agilarc LLC, a data management company that focuses on building agility into formal architecture.

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