BI tools gaining importance, users say

But IT shops find they can't support as many tools as in the past

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As companies prepare to ratchet up business intelligence (BI) from the departmental level to enterprise applications that support an overarching business strategy, more and more will be looking to eliminate multiple tool sets and forge closer ties with lines of business.

That was the view from users yesterday at Computerworld's Business Intelligence Perspectives conference here.

Carlson Hospitality Worldwide in Minnetonka, Minn., for example, is replacing six BI reporting and analysis tools so it can standardize on Information Builders Inc.'s WebFocus BI platform. Carlson will use WebFocus tools for reporting and to deliver scorecard applications to each of its 870 hotels.

The company started the project to whittle its BI tools in January; Since then, Carlson has been able to decrease its report templates from 210 to 70, said Robert Richards, the company's director of application development. Two months ago, Carlson stopped using one of the six reporting tools, and it plans to eliminate the remaining five during the next year and a half.

Having multiple BI tools made it difficult for users to find data and left Carlson's development shop backlogged, Richards said. "The key is making sure you don't do the development more than once," he said. "We'll be able to display information to the business much faster because IT won't have to support multiple tools."

The new scorecards will allow the company to move beyond simple reporting to provide users with metrics they can use to adjust operations, he added.

Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha two months ago developed a strategy to consolidate multiple BI tools it uses from Hyperion Solutions Corp., Information Builders, SAS Institute Inc., Siebel Systems Inc. and SPSS Inc., said Rich Dickeson, director of business analytics at the rail company.

"I am looking for companies that will play well together," he said. "The fewer things I have to support, the better. If it is going to be two or three, I want those two or three to have partnerships with each other."

Dickeson said he expects some pushback from users, noting that some that departments have a five- or six-year investment in a tool. "That might be the one that gets chosen versus one that was just brought in six months ago."

Keith Gile, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said BI has reached a tipping point as companies move to expand access to BI data from power users to a new realm of users: business executives and front-line managers. At most companies that have rolled out BI tools, only about 5% to 7% of employees now use the tools. But over the next several years, companies will begin expanding the reach of BI tools to include half of all employees, he said.

That expansion, though, will require companies to reduce the number of BI tools they support.

"If you have 15 BI solutions, try to manage them, pay for them and make sure they are synchronized -- you can't," Gile said.

Rent-A-Center Inc. began installing Business Object SA's XI BI platform within the past 30 days, said Tony Fuller, vice president and CIO of the Plano, Texas-based company. While a parallel data warehousing project is being run by the IT shop, Fuller said the business intelligence tools project is being led by the business community.

"That shows we're serious about it being a business function," Fuller said. "I approach [executives] as a business leader, not an IT executive. A lot of these [BI] initiatives are IT-driven ... We have a tendency to move forward at 100 miles an hour without taking consideration of the business."

The BI tools, which the company will roll out over the next 18 months, initially will be used by about a dozen power users. They will eventually be used by an additional 35 or 40 executives and managers.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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