27 February 2016

2¢ on BI Myths: Business Intelligence is Complex

Introduction

    While looking over “Business Intelligence Concepts and Platform Capabilities” Coursera MOOC resources for Module 2 I run into two similar articles from Solutions Review, respectively Information Age. What caught my attention was the easiness with which the complexity of BI “myth” is approached in both columns.

    According to the two sources the capabilities of nowadays BI tools “enabled business users to easily identify and present trends in an impactful way” [1], and “do not require an expert at the helm” [2]. It became thus simpler for users to independently query data and create interactive reports and presentations [2]. In both columns one can read between the lines that the simplicity of using BI tools is equivalent with negating the complexity of BI, which from my point of view is false. In fact here are regarded especially the self-service BI tools, in trend nowadays, that allow users to easily perform ad-hoc analysis with a minimal involvement from IT. Self-service BI is only a subset of what BI for organizations means, and just a capability from the many BI capabilities an organization needs in theory, even if some organizations might use it extensively.

Beyond the Surface

    A BI tool is not a BI solution per se, even if many generic BI solutions for different systems are available out of the box. This is one of the biggest confusion managers, users and unfortunately also BI professionals make. A BI tool offers the technological basis for creating a BI infrastructure, though it comes with no guarantees. It takes a well-defined IT and business strategy, one or more successful projects, skillful developers and users in order to harness the BI investment.

    On the other side it’s also true that organizations can obtain results also from less, though BI doesn’t equates with any ad-hoc analysis performed by users, even if they use BI tools for this purpose. BI is not only about tools, reporting and revealing trends in the data. BI often implies a holistic knowledge about the business and certain data awareness, without which users will start aggregating and comparing apples with pears and wonder why they taste and look different.

    If everything were so simple then why so many BI projects fail to deliver what’s expected? Why so many managers complain that they don’t have the data they need, when they need them? Sure maybe the problem lies in over-complexifying the whole BI landscape and treating everything from a high-level, though that’s more likely not it.

It’s a Teamwork Knowledge Game

    BI is or needs to be monitoring and problem solving oriented. This requires a deep understanding about processes and business. There are business users and also BI professionals who don’t have the knowledge one needs in order to approach a business problem. One can see that from the premises they have, the questions they raise, the data they consider, the models they build, and the results.

    From a BI professional’s perspective, even if one has a broad knowledge about various businesses, one often lacks the insight in a given business. BI professionals can seldom provide adequate BI solutions without input and feedback from the business. Some BI professionals rely too much on their knowledge, same as the business sometimes expects a maximum output from BI professionals by providing a minimum of input.

    Considering the business users, quite often their focus and knowledge cover only the data boundaries of their department, while many problems extend over those boundaries. They know facts that are not necessarily reflected in the data. Even if they are closer to the data than other parties, they still lack some data-awareness (including statistical awareness) in order to approach problems.

    Somebody was saying ironically when talking about users’ data and problem solving skills - “not everybody is a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs”. Continuing the idea, one can’t expect users to act as such. For sure there are many business users who are better problem solvers than BI consultants, though on the other side one can’t expect that the average business user will have the same skillset as an experienced BI consultant. This is in fact one of the problems of self-service BI. Probably with time and effort organization will develop such resources, though some help from BI professionals will be still needed. Without a good cooperation between the business and BI professionals an organization might not have the hoped results when investing in BI

More on Complexity

    The complexity arises when one tries to make more with the data, especially the data found in raw form. Usually the complexity of raw data can be addressed by building a logical or physical model that allows easier consumption of data. Here is the point where the users find themselves overwhelmed, because for this is required a good knowledge of the physical data model and its semantics, the technical knowledge to build models and the skills to reengineer the logic available in the source systems. These are the themes BI professionals are supposed to excel in. Talking about models, they are the most difficult to build because they reflect various segments of the business, they reflect a breakdown of the complexity. It’s also the point where many BI projects fail as the built models don’t reflect the reality or aren’t capable to answer to business questions.

    Coming back to the two columns, I have to point out that the complexity of a subject or domain can’t be judged based on how easy is to approach basic tasks. The complexity lies typically when one goes beyond the basics, when one dives into details. In case of BI its complexity starts when one attempts mixing various technologies and knowledge domains to model and solve daily business problems in an integrated, holistic, aligned, consistent and cost-effective manner. The more the technologies, the knowledge domains and constraints one has to consider, the more complex the BI landscape and solutions become.

    On the other side this doesn’t mean that the BI infrastructure can’t be simplified, that BI can’t rely heavily or exclusively on self-service BI solutions. However for each strategy there are advantages and disadvantages and one more likely has to consider both sides of the coin in the process. And self-service BI has its own trade-offs, weaknesses that can be transformed in strengths with time.

Conclusion

   When one considers nowadays BI tools capabilities, ad-hoc analyses are relatively easy to perform and can lead to results, though such analyses don’t equate with BI and the simplicity with which they are performed don’t necessarily imply that BI is simple as a whole. When one considers the complexity of nowadays businesses, the more one dives in various problems a business has, the more complex the BI landscape seems. In the end it’s in each organization powers to simplify and harmonize its BI infrastructure to a degree that its business goals aren’t affected negatively.


Resources
[1] Information Age (2015) 5 Myths about Intelligence, by Ben Rossi, [Online] Available from: http://www.information-age.com/technology/information-management/123460271/5-myths-about-business-intelligence 
[2] SolutionsReview (2015) Top 5 Business Intelligence Myths Revealed, by Timothy King, [Online] Available from: http://solutionsreview.com/business-intelligence/top-5-business-intelligence-myths-revealed
[3] Gartner (2016) Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms, by Josh Parenteau, Rita L. Sallam, Cindi Howson, Joao Tapadinhas, Kurt Schlegel, Thomas W. Oestreich [Online] Available from: https://www.gartner.com/doc/reprints?id=1-2XXET8P&ct=160204&st=sb 
[4] Coursera (2016) Business Intelligence Concepts, Tools, and Applications MOOC, led by Jahangir Karimi, University of Colorado, [Online] Available from: https://www.coursera.org/learn/business-intelligence-tools

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