BI finally being aimed at end-users: conference-goers

After years of talk about 'BI for the masses', it's finally happening, panel says

While the notion of "democratising" business intelligence has been bandied about for years, only recently have many companies placed the end-user squarely in their BI sights as part of efforts to bolster company performance.

That was the upshot from the recent Computerworld US BI Perspectives conference.

A panel of users noted that, for the most part, IT managers still face a difficult road in extending BI to the corporate masses. For example, users must first be enticed to use BI tools and processes, and then IT must create convincing ways to measure their ROI.

Robert Fort, CIO at Virgin Entertainment, noted that his company homed in on store sales associates at the start of its BI efforts, seeking ways to give them real-time access to focused sales data so they could improve operations on the fly.

"[Sales associates] are the people who actually have the opportunity to influence the numbers," Fort said. "We gave [sales data] to them on a real-time basis. In the middle of day, they can see if they are making their sales plans. They can change their behaviour."

Executive management, in contrast, can better use a broader aggregated view of data, he added.

Calvin Johnson, director of the research and evaluation office at the District of Columbia's Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, agreed, though he noted that the agency's early BI efforts focused on providing information to the BI project's executive sponsor — the person who first agreed to fund the initiative.

"If we continue doing that, [the BI effort] will backfire, because really we have to think about the people who are going to be utilising the tools," Johnson said. "When you think about developing a solution, it has to be flexible enough that it can capture the attention of the line staff and keep them motivated."

Many companies still have some way to go before they can push BI into the hands of front-line workers, according to an informal poll of audience members at the show. In that poll, 60% of the respondents said that less that 15% of users in their companies were using installed BI tools.

Jim Livingston, interim CIO of the University of Utah's healthcare operation, said that his organisation has used BI tools for more than 14 years, but it only recently "hit the mark with what the users wanted" — by providing the ability to create personal reports and dashboards.

"They felt like IT was a bottleneck to create reports," he said. Since adding the new capabilities, BI adoption "has gone through the roof," he added.

Guido Sacchi, CIO and senior vice president of corporate strategies at CompuCredit, says the company aligns BI projects to very specific end user needs to help spread use of the technology. For example, a recent project focused only on improving the speed of queries and making sure those queries were accessing the freshest data available, he noted. "Focusing on exactly the parameters of performance that are important to users helps foster adoption," he said.

Establishing a clear-cut ROI for BI has always been a problem for companies; but some on the panel suggested ways to justify the investment in the tools.

Spencer Taft, BI Group Manager at media company Cox Enterprises, says that a BI project at his company uncovered US$250,000 (NZ$327,000) in uncollected revenue, a result the group used to talk up other potential projects.

Virgin's Fort noted that after installing BI tools for sales associates, the company's sales increased, and IT measurements concluded that 20% of the increase could be traced to the use of BI tools.

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