Measuring your BI quotient

The greatest oxymoron of all must be 'military intelligence'*. But close behind the elusive military kind, business intelligence (BI) is also a scarce commodity.

The greatest oxymoron of all must be "military intelligence"*. Its place at the top of the list has been cemented by events in Iraq, starting with the failed attempt to "decapitate" the regime before the war really got going.

But close behind the elusive military kind, business intelligence (BI) is also a scarce commodity. Who hasn't had a letter from a bank or phone company making some nonsensical demand? When the IRD sends a payment reminder to the already dead taxpayer, or the bank threatens foreclosure on the longtime customer whose account is overdrawn by some trifling amount, the right hand typically doesn't know what the left is doing. Annoyance and embarrassment are the result.

Corporate embarrassment is one thing, but according to information management specialist Brenda Tripp, the consequences can be much worse. Tripp, who was presenting on the subject at the start of the month, cites the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle as an example of a how bad things can get when crucial information goes missing. In that instance, a vital shuttle component was known to be vulnerable to failure below a certain temperature. The day the Challenger blew up the air temperature was below the threshold, but because the people who should have known that vital detail didn't, disaster ensued.

Seventeen years on, one would hope the business intelligence tools now available would ensure the same oversight couldn't occur. But, says Tripp, solving the information management problem is not just a matter of choosing a suitable tool. The real issue is the form in which information is stored, a problem reminiscent of the 70s challenge of how to manage data, which leapt ahead with the development of relational databases.

At this point in the history of information management, no one has yet come up with a way of containing unstructured data in a single place, that is granular and reusable, defined and classified for easy access and retrieval, able to be viewed in multiple ways, and intelligent.

Tripp is touching on an area which network equipment maker Cisco began grappling with in 1999, in an effort to create reusable training material. Wayne Wieseler, one of the authors of a white paper published by Cisco on its reusable information object strategy, lamented that "perhaps the greatest obstacle to widespread adoption of object-based content development has been the lack of unified standards for what constitutes a single unit of content".

Tripp's vision is of a central repository of information conforming to a standard -- of the Lego kind -- that can cope with input from multiple sources, for assembly into whatever form of output is required by the information user. It sounds too good to be true and, unfortunately, it is.

Earlier this month, analyst firm Meta Group published new research on the BI market. Far from the notion of a single tool that would ferret out whatever information was sought by whoever was looking, Meta reckons large organisations will be using as many as five tools. Until a standard takes shape that can accommodate the range of information types, a variety of tools -- enterprise reporting, ad hoc query and analysis, OLAP servers and analytic dashboards -- will be needed, says Meta's David Folger.

Despite the fact that there isn't yet an all-seeing answer to business intelligence, another analyst, Nuclear Research, is suggesting spending on BI tools is a good investment. Nucleus's Rebecca Wettemann says BI tools are showing good returns on investment as pressure mounts on vendors to improve the usability of these packages in anticipation of Microsoft making a bigger splash in the market.

Yet another analyst, IDC, says among the vertical markets in which BI tool uptake is strongest are banking and telecommunications. And we all know they need them.

*To order yourself a "military intelligence" t-shirt, go here.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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