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Extending the Reach of Business Intelligence: A Q&A Spotlight Interview with Glen Rabie of Yellowfin

Originally published March 14, 2012

BeyeNETWORK Spotlights focus on news, events and products in the business intelligence ecosystem that are poised to have a significant impact on the industry as a whole; on the enterprises that rely on business intelligence, analytics, performance management, data warehousing and/or data governance products to understand and act on the vital information that can be gleaned from their data; or on the providers of these mission-critical products.

Presented as Q&A-style articles, these interviews conducted by the BeyeNETWORK present the behind-the-scene view that you won’t read in press releases.

This BeyeNETWORK spotlight features Ron Powell's interview with Glen Rabie, CEO of Yellowfin. Ron and Glen discuss how Yellowfin enables companies to make business intelligence more consumable and accessible.

Glen, one of the biggest trends we're seeing in business intelligence today is extending the reach of business intelligence (BI) to business analysts and other consumers of business intelligence. We have gone way beyond the early adopter phase, and now we’re reaching out to the mainstream market. The goal is for everyone to use BI. What do you feel is driving this trend, and what kind of challenges is Yellowfin seeing with its customer base?

Glen Rabie: The dream of having mass consumerization of BI has been a topic of discussion for many years now, and I do think we're getting there. There are a number of factors in that. First is the availability and relative cost of the technology to rollout. In my early days of actually working in business intelligence as a consultant, one of the biggest impediments back then was really the cost of deployment, the capacity to rollout. Over the last decade quite a lot has been achieved in lowering the relative cost per person for deployments.

The second factor is related to demand. We see a general trend toward consumerization of other products that people experience on the Web – Google search, Google maps, etc. These things drive a perspective from individuals that they should be able to get and use information at work as quickly and easily as they do online at home. As a result, we're seeing that there's quite a bit of pressure internally to deliver on this.

I think the challenge for Yellowfin and for any BI vendor is how to deliver what is essentially a specialized field. How do you make BI consumable? How do you make it something that people actually want to interact with? We can all simply deliver reports and push reports out to people, but that's not enough. I think people have to be able to explore, interact, and work with it, and that presents a whole series of usability challenges that are at the core of BI right now.

That makes a lot of sense, Glen. We are also seeing that information consumers need to collaborate with others within the organization as well as partners and suppliers external to the organization. How are they able to accomplish this task with Yellowfin?

Glen Rabie:
That's interesting. There are two parts to that. First there's the actual sharing of information so people have access to exactly the same data, the same information. And the second is the discussions and collaborations around that data. So from the sharing component, it comes to the price point of Yellowfin and the way in which we work for external deployments. We have some very significant external deployments. Presently, we're rolling one out to 600,000 people, which is essentially every customer of a particularly large telco. And the idea is that the corporate customers are getting transparency into the organization. They're able to seethe same data as their internal account managers. As a result, they can actually have real conversations around the business that they're both in. So that's one piece of how to share that data in a way that's usable.

Then the second piece, which I think is still quite embryonic in organizations, is the collaboration around the data – the actual conversation – as opposed to just purely the sharing of data. And again, I think that's largely driven by a lot of the social media tools like Twitter and Facebook where people are experiencing the capacity to converse with each other all the time. In the last 12 to 20 months at Yellowfin, we have gone to a lot of effort to incorporate as much of that conversation into the product as possible. We want it to bubble up, rather than be something that's hidden in the background. And to that end, we have created a fully integrated in-app discussion forum. It is discussion-centric, and you can actually include reports so you can have a whole discussion around why, for example, sales are down in Asia. We can look at multitudes of factors. Whereas traditionally you might have just looked purely at each report and held a physical meeting to discuss the implications of each report.

An extension of collaboration is getting the information to the people who need it, where they need it and the way they want it. We're seeing that mobile devices are playing a big role in that information dissemination. Is your approach browser-based and how does mobile fit in?

Glen Rabie:
Yes, definitely. Yellowfin is and always has been a browser-based application. Again, when we started Yellowfin and thought about what we wanted to build, the Web was really a cornerstone of that. We didn't grow up out of a desktop. We literally grew up believing we were going to deploy to hundreds and thousands of people – now it's up to 600,000 people in a single deployment. Yellowfin is completely browser-based with everything managed on the servers so there's no client-side software. People should be able to access their data regardless of where they are and what they use. We are able to embed Yellowfin as a Web service into their applications and deploy our mobile piece on top of that.

We're on to version two now of our mobile platform, where customers can access their data via the device of their choice through a Web browser, or via native applications for the iPad, iPhone or Android devices. The first version I'd describe as exploratory. It was learning. It was understanding how people would be using devices like the iPad. And what we realized is that they're fundamentally consumer devices. People who use the iPad are people who really are not builders of content. They are people who need to know what's happening, converse with other people around what's happening – they're using it more as a consumer device internally in organizations. And so, for us, the mobile strategy is all about getting users to really embrace BI, and want to use it, and enjoy the process of using it. It's simple; we believe that if you love using the application, you're going to use it more and get more value out of it. Our mobile piece is about creating content once through the browser application but then consuming it anywhere. So whether you're on a mobile device, your laptop, or your phone, you should be seeing exactly the same content as it was created for you to satisfy your specific informational needs.

What version are you on in Yellowfin?

Glen Rabie: We started in 2003, and we're up to version 6 now. We have a release every six months or so. May and November is when we release. The idea is that we take people on a journey so it’s constant iterative releases rather than waiting two or three years for a massive release that's completely disruptive. And again because of the size of the deployments we're doing, we need to bring people along with us the whole time.

Can you explain Yellowfin's embedded approach to BI and tell us how it differs from the traditional methods of BI deployment?

Glen Rabie: Definitely. Again, this comes back to the really large deployments that we do. If you think about the way people do their jobs, most people don't think about a BI product per se. They don't think about it as being core to what they do in their work. So, the question becomes: How do you take content that's been created in your BI tool and actually put that into someone's business process? To do that, you have to plug it into the work that they're doing and the applications they're using.

A good example would be a telco billing environment used to create or manage its invoicing process. They may hit thresholds that a person needs to be alerted about, enabling them to act upon that information immediately.

Through all the plug-in APIs we have, it makes it really simple to copy a report, or entire dashboard, and put that into any other application. It’s live, it's interactive, people can use it. So we're not application-centric; we're more information centric. Content syndication – the ability to embed BI content in third party platforms and applications – forms a major, and differentiating, part of Yellowfin's Collaborative BI strategy moving forward. We're thinking more about how people want to use information rather than making them use Yellowfin. That makes for a much broader deployment and means an organization gets far more value out of it because it's being used across multiple applications, across multiple business processes, and it’s part of those processes, not independent of them.

Now I understand Yellowfin also makes it easy to analyze location-based data. Could you tell us how organizations use location based data and the advantages that Yellowfin provides?

Glen Rabie: Yellowfin’s ability to create multilayered maps enables our customers to identify location-based trends on a micro and macro level. In fact, Yellowfin and client Macquarie University won Ventana Research's 2011 Leadership Awards for Location Intelligence. The awards recognized the Yellowfin and Macquarie University BI implementation as the best 2010/11 worldwide example of location intelligence and the most likely to produce significant business value heading into 2012.

Before starting Yellowfin and working in BI, I was working for a large financial institution, and one of the things that was really interesting was that virtually all their data had a location element. Customers are located somewhere, and bankers are located somewhere. Getting the match between the relative income of those customers, the bank, and the capacity to sell new product, was all on a tabular format – people actually went through tables and sort of had to scan the tables. It was really interesting to me that the BI tool that we were using didn’t facilitate the capacity just to look at a map, which is so much simpler and makes it easier to understand that data.

People use location intelligence to understand data. For example, from a marketing perspective, if I’m investing in a marketing campaign, where are my inbound calls coming from? Who am I targeting? What are the demographics from that area? We have some great customers who use exchange data. They can pinpoint the exact location of the customer as a result of the exchange area. They can understand the demographics of that exchange area, and therefore they can understand who's actually responding to their marketing and how. We have others who use it to find where their next store should be. One of the interesting things about a map, which a table doesn't tell you, is where things are not. You can look at a map and immediately see where you don't have sales. In a tabular format you just don’t have a row so you don’t know which row is missing. To me, that's really interesting – that's knowledge and power.

Do you see Yellowfin as a complement to existing BI deployments or is it a replacement?

Glen Rabie: It depends. So again, one of the things that I think I learned really early on was that there's quite a range of BI needs from production reporting all the way through to high end analytics. The use cases and the people who are working with each of these areas need specific tools. And so if I look at Yellowfin and where we're deployed, we're often deployed in conjunction with analytic tools. Because we focus far more on larger deployments, we can often coexist with traditional BI tools. We then become the wrapper of the onion for your BI implementation so that BI can be extended to a much larger user constituency. At the other end, there are data analysts whose job it is to slice and dice data. They might use a completely separate tool. As indicated by Gartner’s 2012 BI Magic Quadrant survey and Dresner’s Wisdom of Crowds study results, enterprises are going to have to deal with a multitude of BI solutions. This multiple solution environment is a product of business user demand for ease-of-use and IT’s demand for deep analytical functionality. I don't think there's a BI tool on the planet that does everything for everyone.

One last observation, when you talk about 600,000 users, you must have made this incredibly affordable.

Glen Rabie: We saw that people want to deliver to their customers, but there's no way that it makes economic sense to do with any traditional BI tools. We have a separate pricing structure for large deployments. Our philosophy is that Yellowfin customers should be able to deliver business intelligence to all their employees because if you're deploying BI to only 10 or 20 people in an organization of 500, you're really missing out on the value of business intelligence. We believe BI should be affordable and available to everyone.

Glen, I want to thank you for taking time to share how Yellowfin is helping companies extend the reach of business intelligence.

  • Ron PowellRon Powell
    Ron is an independent analyst, consultant and editorial expert with extensive knowledge and experience in business intelligence, big data, analytics and data warehousing. Currently president of Powell Interactive Media, which specializes in consulting and podcast services, he is also Executive Producer of The World Transformed Fast Forward series. In 2004, Ron founded the BeyeNETWORK, which was acquired by Tech Target in 2010.  Prior to the founding of the BeyeNETWORK, Ron was cofounder, publisher and editorial director of DM Review (now Information Management). He maintains an expert channel and blog on the BeyeNETWORK and may be contacted by email at rpowell@powellinteractivemedia.com. 

    More articles and Ron's blog can be found in his BeyeNETWORK expert channel.

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