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Not so intelligent

IN THEORY, the introduction of an all-singing, all-dancing business intelligence solution means that decisions are better informed and can be made quickly, costs can be reduced, and market opportunities ruthlessly exploited. No wonder it is seen by many as an essential tool. What’s not to like?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. According to the National Computer Centre’s (NCC’s) latest survey (right) of IT decision makers at a cross section of 100 businesses, more than 50% of respondents see the overall performance of their BI package as no more than average. Even more damningly, 16% see the results as poor and 6% as very poor.

But such disappointment is not putting companies off from ploughing even more cash into increasing their use of enterprise software. Even though the technology is falling short of meeting the company’s objectives in many cases, nearly two thirds of those surveyed by the NCC are planning to increase their use of the software.

According to Cliff Mills, research manager at the NCC, part of the problem is that businesses fall into the trap of viewing the software as the be-all and end-all when it is only part of the solution. People rush into acquiring the dashboard before fully understanding whether their existing systems could produce the data they were looking for in the first place.

“People think buying a software application will change the world. You have to forget about the technology and say, ‘What do we want to achieve?’,” says Mills. “Once you can define that, you can look at the appropriate software needed to deliver your goals.”

To make the most of the software, you also need vision and leadership, cultural change and a good understanding of the capabilities of your current infrastructure to host or interface with the new software.

“To make a BI programme work and get people using it in a meaningful way, you need a stick,” says Peter McHugh, CEO and founder of Covalent Software. “It needs someone at a senior level to say, ‘This is how we will use the data to manage the business.’ Unless it is the chief executive’s personal project, they are found to die or founder. Leadership is the key thing.”

BI failings

The major failings identified in the NCC survey are that information is scattered across multiple systems, making it hard to find and access. This has the knock-on effect that information is not always available quickly enough.

Ideally, the data held in the data warehouse should be as up-to-date as possible, allowing timely results to be produced. While most companies use data from the previous day, 15% of businesses still use data that is at least a week old, and in some cases older than one month.

“People buy systems and data gets stored in various ways. When you have data spread over many systems – such as legacy systems as a result of a merger or a takeover – accessing it can become very difficult. It’s about trying to combine that data and knowing what you have,” says Mills. “Ideally you want data as rapidly as you can. Data that is a month old will not be right for most companies’ purposes.”

Mills adds that the businesses really on top of rapidly accessing their data are retail organisations. “Other companies that don’t have that impetus don’t put systems in place or realise they need them,” he says.

In addition, information is often found to be inconsistent, leading to multiple versions of the truth and the need to keep separate records so there can be accurate analysis of the information.

However, McHugh says there will always be the issue of having data stored across multiple systems.

“There are different systems in place for valid reasons. A single version of the truth is a myth. You will always have conflicting data points,” he says.

This has also hampered companies’ abilities to create a single view of the customer by providing complete information on all the interactions an organisation has with its customers. Only 6% of businesses have achieved it for all their customers and 18% for some. Most other companies are either still working towards this goal or are still some way off from achieving it.

Andrew Fogg, chief information officer at Kusiri, says aligning this data becomes an integration project for most companies.

“The problem is that a lot of the content that is relevant to the business is not indexable,” he says.

The problem is compounded by the fact that organisations are producing and having to store more and more data: 73% of businesses have experienced an increase in the volume of data stored.

McHugh says that although companies can produce data on almost anything, the approach should focus on the vital few.

“You need to define the company’s priorities,” he says. “What are the key metrics? Most businesses don’t need to have gazillions of data. The bottom line is your ability to take away from being about data to something more living and breathing.” ?

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