Business Intelligence Pervasiveness (and is it Wise to Ignore those Shadow Spreadbasemarts?)
by David Loshin
Originally published March 26, 2009
I attended some sessions at Gartner’s 2009 Business Intelligence Summit. At one of the sessions, Gartner Distinguished Analyst Donald Fineberg discussed “The CIO’s view of Business Intelligence,” and provided some reflection of a commonplace pattern across the IT community, namely the senior IT staff members do not effectively engage business sponsors when communicating the value of business intelligence (BI). This was not a particular surprise to me, nor to many of the others listening to the talk. I was, though, bewildered about two other notions that were brought up: one was the focus of a lengthy chunk of presentation bandwidth, while the other was almost a “one-off” comment tossed out and then completely dropped.
The first notion had to do with the concept of the “Business Intelligence Competency Center,” or the “BICC.” One specific comment suggested that there had been continuous advice for fifteen years to IT departments to lobby the business side for support of a BICC, to manage tools, techniques, and best practices associated with business intelligence, but that few organizations had gotten around to doing it. But what does a BICC do? Apparently (based on a scan of articles, presentations, white papers, etc.), the BICC team standardizes platforms, communicates the value of business intelligence across the organizations, provides cross-functional collaboration, supports projects, aligns business intelligence and performance management with organizational business objectives, manages tools, provides data stewardship, performs requirements analysis, organize professionals and provide training.
These are all great things to do, but emerging trends may suggest that the notion of a BICC may become anachronistic as the capabilities supported by a business intelligence framework become more pervasive and embedded within everyday applications and business processes. Reporting, parameterized queries, and interactive analytics are examples of BI techniques that are rapidly being embedded within business applications without the need for the user to jump out and access a BI front end tool, and this may preempt the need for some aspects of the BICC. Better yet, there are many agile software vendors creating low cost tools (data analyzers, visualization engines, mash-up makers) that put the power of analysis in the hands of the business user, perhaps even “promoting” them into the lower echelon of the power user class. Lastly, more tools are integrating analytical models into the framework (e.g., Microsoft’s integration of data mining models into SQL Server) to let anyone try out bunches of models without needing to know how they work.
The one-off comment had to do with the multitude of desktop databases that exist across the organization. I am paraphrasing the speaker, who mentioned that the CIO’s focus on business intelligence was notwithstanding the thousands of spreadsheets and databases, but we could ignore those for now. The problem is that in our interactions with clients, it is exactly those “spreadbasemarts” that are used to generate the analyses and reports that bubble up through the presentation slideware into executive briefings. Desktop databases and spreadsheets enable business users to get the answers they need immediately without having to navigate the IT development lifecycle. In some places, these artifacts have become de facto components of production processes, with data extracted from one source, dumped into a desktop database, which is managed within some enterprise sharing environment, which then sources yet another production application. In essence, to some extent the business is being run using these shadow data repositories outside of the realm of the traditional IT mandate.
The offhandedness of the comment also suggested that the rampant proliferation of desktop spreadbasemarts was a bad thing; I beg to differ. Their existence is, perhaps, indicative of the same trends that contribute to the imminent obsolescence of the BICC – it puts the power in the hands of the people, who are stymied by the IT practices and want to game the system to get the answer they need right away.
I have a different problem with them, though. Clearly there are business dependencies on these data sets, but in the absence of governance, there is an even greater potential for inconsistency across the generated reports and presentations, leading to an increased reactive need for reconciliation. More critically, the reports generated are neither subject to review for correctness nor are they auditable, since the results may differ based on when the data was extracted, who generated the tables, and who conjured up the graphs. On the other hand, forcing desktop analytics into the yoke of IT governance may have the opposite effect, driving more business users into the shadows.
Perhaps the trick lies in clarifying what that governance really is – instead of the typical role-based infrastructure (that allocates additional work to fully-tasked individuals whose stewardship successes are neither measured nor recognized), institute a more operational set of guidelines that are specifically directed to the business analysts. Desktop analysis datasets should at least be registered with a centralized authority so that dependencies, impacts, and conflicts can be analyzed. Registering and sharing analyses or reports that use extracted data might provide benefit across the board, enabling notifications (or even automated updates) when the underlying data sets change. And as performance management and desktop analysis become more pervasive, adjusting the culture to one of sharing and collaboration may finally establish that community of interest (inherent in the concept of the BICC) based on user demand instead of IT fiat.
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