First a reality check! We must accept the widely published results of industry surveys that indicate that business intelligence (BI) remains a top priority for CIOs, and CEOs still list business
insight as one of the top five challenges they face. These results are a clear indication that despite all the investments in data warehousing, analytics and business intelligence and, although we
have made some progress, we have a long way to go to deliver completely on the promise of business intelligence. My goal here is to uncover a root cause of this shortfall and recommend a new approach
for delivering BI solutions.
If you watch television news, drive a hybrid car or use online banking, you are using business intelligence. If you use a GPS navigation device or watch cable television, you are using business
intelligence. If you have an Internet homepage set up that has stock prices, local movie show times, news headlines and Doonesbury, you are using business intelligence. So that we don’t get too
far off track, let’s call this use of the BI metaphor consumer intelligence (CI). Deconstructing these examples of CI allows us to identify what makes them interesting. In doing so, you will
recognize the basic tenets of business intelligence since the days it was called EIS (executive information system) in the 1970s.
The original BI vision of providing insight for business leaders is now in the mainstream for consumers. While there might be a chicken and egg argument to be made, the big “aha” is
that while enterprises have been trying to fix the data and dabbling in business intelligence, the dream has been delivered to the masses. And that changes things for CEOs, CIOs and BI
Very wisely, many industries have discovered how to communicate effectively with a broad spectrum of consumers in a way that adds value to the experience. The transformative event is the use of
pictures, graphics and non-textual representations transcending language to provide universal insight to the world in which we live. The reason it works is quite simple. Visualization is at the core
of the way humans comprehend and communicate data and convert it to information or knowledge.
Clearly, the way information is communicated in the 21st
century has changed. Not only does this new pervasive form of communication change the expectation in board rooms, in meeting rooms
and on desktops throughout corporate America, but it also provides insight into one of the secrets to success for business intelligence.
In this article, first we will look at some of the most visible uses of the BI metaphor as a means of understanding what they are and why they work. Secondly, we will apply these conclusions to
business intelligence and the techniques used to develop and implement BI-oriented solutions.
Back to the Future – Communicating with Pictures
Since cave paintings, pictures have been used as a means to communicate. There is a lesson here when we consider this in the context of business intelligence. The use of visualization as a means
to communicate information easily and effectively has been a promise of BI since its inception. Nearly every news network now brings CI into our living rooms every day. On November 4, 2008, the world
watched an American election of historical significance. At the same time, we experienced the launch of electoral CI. The CNN hologram was big news and captured the attention of millions, but the
Star Wars-like reporter was just the beginning. Leading up to and throughout election day, news organizations were quietly competing to bring more insightful, interactive and highly pictorial
analyses to their broadcasts. Consider the simplicity and ease of conveying information to the viewer using the multi-touch screen analysis, the lower-third screen graphics, the hologram of Congress
with color-coded seats and other on-point visualization. The on-air reporters could have been speaking virtually any language, but the visual information was still understood by all. Not only was it
well understood, but most people can recall the information with very little effort. This is important to understand! Without getting into the cognitive science behind it, the human mind works in
peculiar ways. Turns out, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Auto-Mobile Takes on a Whole New Meaning
Our vehicles now come fully loaded with automation and intelligence. The Toyota Prius includes CI in the dashboard. A touch screen displays a real-time graphical analysis of miles per gallon
over the course of the current trip to allow drivers to optimize the use of the electric engine. Another screen provides instantaneous pictures about how the vehicle is allocating energy use between
the gas-powered motor, the electric motor and the braking system. Beyond these very cool and useful tools, automobile technology is now interactive as well. Cars equipped with GPS and real-time
traffic capability constantly monitor progress against a planned route, looking ahead to warn the driver of problems. Likewise, enterprise business intelligence should offer the same relevant
guidance. A businessperson must be immediately notified of an interruption in the planned or expected operation of the business with suggested corrective action.
Communicating through Touch is Very Human
The iPod, the iPhone and touch screen technology create a metaphor that rapidly is becoming the standard for personal gadgetry. Every product company in virtually every category is thinking
about how to make their products touchable: computers, phones, cars, refrigerators, ovens, coffee makers, copiers and so on. It is as though the world has discovered a new concept. People are good
with their hands and have been communicating with them since the dawn of man. Combine the touch metaphor with pictures, and a product that works in the U.S. will also work in every other country in
the world without changing the language setting. The critical element to the wild and rapid adoption of touch technology is the visualization of the content.
As used in mass media and consumer products, visualization sets a new expectation for the way we present and consume information within enterprises. As a result, the future for business intelligence
in the commercial context has changed in a big way. Our system development methods, techniques and technologies must change just to keep pace with our televisions, cars and handheld devices.
I Want My MTV!
So how does BI catch up to CI? The well known shortfall between the promise and realization of business intelligence is expressed as a desired outcome – business insight. Working the
problem backward from business insight, we look at every stage of development of a solution. Inevitably, we end up at the beginning of the process to identify potential root causes for the shortfall.
In particular, think about the way requirements are discovered, communicated and confirmed by the business user. Right now, BI requirements are presented in dry narrative form. First, a
businessperson is asked some variation of the question, “What do you need?” Sometimes the businessperson is asked, “What’s the problem you are trying to solve?” Then the
“requirements” are typically handed to the user for confirmation in a narrative or textual form with some sort of taxonomy or navigation hierarchy presented in a spreadsheet. In some
cases, mockups or prototypes are used, but they are typically static and on paper. Once the solution is installed, we frequently hear, “I know that is what I asked for, but it is not what
I want” or “I can’t tell you what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it!”
It is high time to apply the lesson from CNN, Toyota and Apple. Visualization is a superior technique for effective communication. Not only is it effective, but by virtue of the mass media usage, it
will become one of the expected forms of communication within organizations.
Do I Have to Draw You a Picture? …Yes!
To meet the expectations of the 21st
century and deliver on the promise of business intelligence, we need to get the requirements right. The examples of CNN, Toyota and
Apple inspire two key lessons we can apply to capturing BI requirements that will provide enhanced value to the business. First, insight is best achieved through visual metaphors. There are plenty of
software packages on the market that provide this capability. The hard part is to present understandable pictures of the correct information for the viewer to gain insight. Second, visualization is
the most effective way to communicate and therefore confirm what is needed in the BI solution. Tabular, textual and narrative forms are old news. Let’s create visual representations of the
solution in order to address the communication gap.
The shift in techniques can be summarized as follows:
- Deliver “business insight” using the visual metaphors;
- Discover the requirements that will yield the “right” information; and
- Use visualization techniques and representations to discover and confirm what is “right.”
To accomplish this shift, a modified methodology must be applied. The use of visualization as a means to communicate, simulate, discover and inspire is not new. Cave men used it! Now CNN uses
it! It is time to re-imagine what can be accomplished through BI and what should be done differently to deliver on the promise. Business intelligence is not simply a technology or a product or a
process. It is a method of communication requiring an understanding of how the human mind works and the power of pictures!
My next article will outline a new methodology for capturing the “right” requirements.
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