What's Next: Business Intelligence

The number of BI vendors will drop, but software choices will multiply.

Don't expect floodgates to burst, but the number of business intelligence users will swell in 2006, as corporate buyers insist that the technology break free of its limited use among data analysts and specialists.

There will be attempts to rope in average corporate knowledge workers, supply chain partners and customers. Helping to lure more mainstream users will be less-complicated querying techniques and basic but creative ways of presenting information gleaned from once-intimidating BI and data warehousing tools.

While the number of BI users will jump, the number of vendors serving up BI systems could diminish slightly over the year as industry consolidation continues. Look for mammoth database suppliers and others to grab at the remaining flock of BI vendors, many experts predict.

Show-stopping acquisitions, however, won't be this year's major BI story. "The big trend in 2006 will be bringing BI to the masses and getting beyond the power users," says Dan Vesset, an analyst at research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass. In fact, in an exclusive Computerworld survey of 338 IT executives conducted in August, respondents ranked BI third among projects planned for 2006.

Building Self-Service

Broadening its base of BI users is a high priority for Granite Rock Co., a construction products company in Watsonville, Calif. Further, the company wants to push extensive use of its analytical data not just within company walls but among its customers and suppliers as well.

Steve Snodgrass, CIO of Granite Rock Co.

Steve Snodgrass, CIO of Granite Rock Co.

Image Credit: Gary Laufman

"Right now, we are using our BI tools to generate on-demand statistics and process-control reports," explains CIO Steve Snodgrass. Specifically, the company uses Business Objects SA's Crystal Enterprise to generate graphic information and other data on construction supplies, such as concrete or asphalt, for quality control.

"You may think concrete is just concrete, but if you are building a house and one load of concrete appears more green and the next load appears more yellow, your customer won't be too happy," says Snodgrass. Yet, in the coming year, Granite Rock wants to go beyond improved order tracking and increased product integrity. "We want to do more in the way of customer self-service," Snodgrass says.

For instance, the company already generates automatic e-mails to customers on the status of trucks coming and going from Granite Rock's various plants. Soon the company will take this a step further. "We want to tie a lot of this information to customer portals, where it can be self-served," Snodgrass explains. "That way, a customer can log in at 8 o'clock at night and get the information he or she needs."

Dashing out status reports and BI analytical data to both internal and external users will become crucial in 2006. "You may see flat-screen monitors in the CEO's office telling him minute by minute what his business is doing," observes Donald Feinberg, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "Visualization of BI data will become more and more available and easier to use."

Various visualization technologies now hold great appeal for corporate officials, says Scott Zimmerman, CIO at CenterPoint Properties Trust, an industrial property management company in Chicago. "I definitely think that everybody's executive board or executive committee is in love with the idea of a dashboard," he says. CenterPoint has built its BI system internally, relying on capabilities inherent in Microsoft Corp.'s .Net platform and Windows SharePoint Services technology.

While CenterPoint's top officials want to explore better BI visualization techniques in 2006, Zimmerman claims that the company first wants to break down barriers to widespread use of its data warehousing application. "The biggest struggle for us is to find the balance between flexibility and complexity," he notes.

IT executives at New York publisher Simon & Schuster Inc. also yearn for better ways to deliver and display BI data and move away from basic columnar reports, says Paul Zanis, director of corporate architecture. "We are looking at dashboards and other solutions, but we have not done much in the way of visualization," he says.

Fast and Clean

Simon & Schuster's main drive in 2006 will be similar to CenterPoint's: the pursuit of improved BI applications that come across as friendlier to the average user. To help make that happen, the publishing company is turning to BusinessObjects Enterprise XI, says Zanis. "We want an application that has a look and feel that is cleaner to the user and has an interface that is less intimidating to those users accustomed to paper reports," he says.

Simon & Schuster also wants a system that requires minimal training. "In our industry, there is a lot of turnover between the large publishing houses," Zanis says. "When we put someone new in a particular role, that person must be able to get up to speed quickly in terms of reports."

Overall, expect the BI industry this year to churn out tools that appeal to a broader audience. Fueling that trend will be steady interest from database vendors and other large companies interested in acquiring specialty BI vendors, predicts IDC's Vesset. "The whole applications area is going through a lot of consolidation, but there are still quite a lot of BI vendors out there," he says.

As this industry evolution takes place, however, the focus will remain steadfastly on efforts to move BI out to the average user. "The whole trend is not use of BI in executive offices, but BI capabilities that can be used by any executive, line manager or employee," says Vesset.

McAdams is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. You can contact her at jjwriterva@aol.com.

See more BI predictions in Heather Havenstein's Reporter's Notebook.

What else is on tap this year in IT? See the complete Forecast 2006 special report.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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