Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Business Intelligence? Yes Minister!

I recently watched an episode of the classic BBC series ‘Yes, Minister’.
In this episode, the minister asked his assistant, Bernard, to inquire about a new hospital where there are supposedly no patients and a ridiculous amount of administrative staff. Bernard conducts some research and returns to the minister with his results.

Here’s a short transcript:
Bernard- You asked me to find out about an alleged empty hospital in north London.
Minister- Oh, yes.
Bernard- Well, in fact there are *only* 342 administrative staff in the new St. Edwards hospital. The other 170 are porters, cleaners, laundry workers, gardeners, cooks and so forth.
Minister- And how many medical staff?
Bernard- Oh, none of those.
Minister- None??
Bernard- No.
Minister- Bernard, we are talking about St. Edwards’s hospital, aren’t we?
Bernard- Yes, it’s brand new. It was completed 15 months ago and is fully staffed. But unfortunately at that time there were government cutbacks and consequently there was no money left for medical services.
Minister- A brand new hospital with over 500 non-medical staff and no patients??
Bernard- Oh, there is one patient, sir.
Minister- One?
Bernard- Yes. The deputy chief administrator fell over a piece of scaffolding and broke his leg
Minister- Oh god. Thank heavens I wasn’t asked about this in The House. Why hasn’t it got out?
Bernard- Well actually I think it’s being contrived to keep looking like a building site and so far no one realized it’s operational.
Minister- I think I better go and have a look at this before the opposition does.

This episode (‘The Compassionate Society’, 1981) is hilarious. But how is it relevant to business intelligence?

Well, think that instead of a conversation between a minister and his assistant about a new hospital, this conversation is actually between a CEO and his CIO regarding an ongoing business intelligence project. You've got yourself a conversation which is still happening more often than not in BI projects, 30 years later.

A business intelligence solution without users is like a hospital without patients. It provides work for IT/implementers/consultants (=administrative staff) but it is of no use to the business users (=patients) for whom the BI solution (=hospital) is actually intended.

Spending too much upfront and going into long development cycles only to find out your ultimate customers - the business users - won't actually use it is a sure-fire way of making a bad investment, running out of budget and getting laughed at by the BBC. You don't want that, do you?

For tips on how to approach your next BI project, check out this post.

By: Elad Israeli | The ElastiCube Chronicles - Business Intelligence Blog

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is Microsoft Admitting that Analysis Services is not Fit for the Mid-Market?

I recently read an article posted on the SQL Server team's blog (Technet) written by Shimon Shlevich, a product manager at Panorama Software, focusing on Microsoft's recently-launched PowerPivot in-memory offering.

According to the author, Microsoft has two main goals with PowerPivot: to "introduce a new in-memory engine for data processing" and to "promote the self-service BI concept extending the usage of BI systems to a wider audience."

There are, of course, other reasons which the author did not mention, such as Microsoft trying to get a fighting chance against QlikView, which has been constantly beating Microsoft at mid-sized and departmental deals.

In addition, Microsoft is trying to motivate their customers to upgrade to Excel 2010, in which PowerPivot is provided for free in the form of an add-in. Microsoft is not a natural BI company and their cash cows are still Windows and Office, so it only makes sense. Will it work? Who knows. Will it change the BI space? Probably not.

To me, the most interesting thing about this post is the fact that PowerPivot is meant to promote the self-service BI concept, which in most people's minds is the complete and utter opposite of what Analysis Services delivers, namely a heavy, IT-centric business intelligence solution.

If this is true, Microsoft is basically admitting on their own blog that Analysis Services has failed to provide a viable solution for mid-sized companies and departments (where self-service BI is widely used) and that their new BI marketing strategy is based on Office, not SQL Server.

This fact is well known to people who are familiar with the trends and nuances of the BI space, but Microsoft saying this on their blog is, to me, a very big deal.

By: Elad Israeli | The ElastiCube Chronicles - Business Intelligence Blog

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Google AdWords Broad Match Modifier

A couple of months ago, Google added a modifier option for the Broad Match type. This option basically allows you to control which words must appear in exact or synonymous form within the search phrase.

For the record, I have always disliked the Broad matching option. Especially since Google introduced Expanded Broad matching where Google shows you ads for every word they deem close enough to the actual word you bid on, not just the exact word.

Ever since they did that, it's become very difficult to control Adwords campaigns because the search phrases you bid on become much less targeted and cost you many irrelevant click$.

The new Broad match modifier is a step in the right direction as it allows you to better control the phrases that bring up your ad.

Let's say you bid on the phrase: Banana Cake Recipe
Setting this phrase to Broad matching, will show your ad to surfers searching for Chocolate Cake Store and Growing Bananas in Brazil which may be irrelevant to what you're advertising.

If you use the new modifier like so: +Banana +Cake +Recipe
Your ad will show only to phrases that contain some variation of all three words. That means that the search phrase must contain all three words, or whichever word Google decide is synonymous to the each of the words you specified. They may, for example, bring your ad up to someone searching for Banana Muffin Recipe. You may like that or you may not.

You can also choose to apply this modifier to only a subset of the words in the phrase, but then you need to determine whether it's worth your while to split the phrase into two separate ones.
By: Elad Israeli | The ElastiCube Chronicles - Business Intelligence Blog

The Catch 22 of Traditional Business Intelligence

So much has already been said about how much of a pain business intelligence is. The complexity, the constant IT bottlenecks, the crazy cost of hardware, software, consultants and whatnot. Gil Dibner of Gemini Venture Funds (formerly of Genesis Partners) described it very eloquently and in great detail in his blog post about the SiSense investment round.

Since business intelligence imposes so many limitations and challenges, every existing BI vendor picks its favorite ones and positions itself as the best at addressing those specific ones. Some focus on providing easy-to-use front-end tools for the business user, some on handling complex ETL scenarios and large data sets, others on open source software to remove software licensing costs and so on.

Business intelligence vendors have been constantly rolling out new functionality and technology through the years. But still, it seems like business intelligence has been standing still. No progress has been made in expanding it to the wider market that can't afford long and costly development/customization cycles. In fact, most of the BI vendors which do not sell enterprise-class solutions (e.g., SAP, IBM and Microsoft) haven't been able to grow much and remain focused on niche markets.

Well, my friends, it's time somebody told it to you straight.

Business intelligence can deliver on its promise, but the entire idea needs a complete overhaul. As long as vendors keep improving specific functions within the traditional BI paradigm, no progress will be made. The traditional business intelligence paradigm needs to be scrapped and replaced by something that is much easier, much faster, much cheaper and much more manageable.

What is the core of the traditional BI problems? The traditional paradigm contains an inherent flaw that prevents it from taking BI to the next level where ROI is indisputable and business users get another powerful tool added their arsenal - in companies of all (or most) sizes.

The Inherent Flaw in the Traditional BI Paradigm

If you search "why business intelligence projects fail" in Google you will find an abundance of white papers and articles (mostly written by BI vendors themselves) giving their two cents' worth. When BI vendors pick their top reasons, they usually pick issues dealt with by their offerings and not by the competitions'. Marketing 101. Fair enough.

But one top reason on which they all seem to agree for a BI project's failure is the lack of up-front planning. That is to say, in order for a business intelligence project to succeed, you must compile your requirements ahead of time, coordinate with all the relevant parties (IT, business departments and executives) and plan the project in accordance to those requirements. Otherwise, you are destined to fail.

In other words, they blame you - the consumer - for a failed BI project. Had you planned ahead, the project would have been a success and you wouldn't have flushed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of software licenses, hardware and personnel time down the toilet.

Sadly, they have a point. Since traditional BI solutions aren't very sympathetic to unplanned changes from an architectural point of view, anything you don't think of in advance is difficult and expensive to introduce later. So you better think long and hard about what you need, because otherwise any requirements you miss could mean the difference between a successful project and a complete mess.

But herein lies the catch.

It doesn't matter who you are or how much experience you have, it is utterly impossible to know in advance what your requirements are when it comes to BI. BI is highly dynamic and requirements change all the time because the business changes all the time and because business users come up with new ideas all the time. A report you need now is not the report you need later, an analysis you do now may only be relevant for a short period of time and meaningless shortly thereafter.

Most importantly - if you are a department or company seeking a BI solution but without any BI development experience, you have no way of knowing how a particular requirement will affect the architecture of your solution. Thus, you could easily find yourself disregarding the immediate testing of some particular capability because it seems trivial to you, just to discover later that the entire solution comes tumbling down when you actually try to use it, and that without it the system is useless.

You cannot imagine how often this happens, especially when a solution calls for OLAP cubes built over a data warehouse (blah).

It's the traditional BI vendors who made up the rules for this game over 10 years ago. They are the ones who've been aggressively promoting a paradigm where everything needs to be thought of in advance - otherwise you are sure to fail. It makes sense because these vendors focus on enterprise-wide BI for fortune 500 companies where the complexity of a BI project is masked by the complexity of the corporation's own business processes. These organizations are used to things taking years to reach perfection because every other process they have pretty much takes the same amount of time.

But trying to implement the same concepts on slightly smaller corporations is the exact reason why most BI projects fail.

Don't get me wrong. It's always good to plan ahead. But know this - business intelligence requirements are impossible to predict and nearly impossible to measure until the end users use it on real data - in real-life scenarios - over time.

You cannot do this with traditional BI without investing a TON beforehand, and even then you have no guarantees. When you go for BI as advocated by the traditional platform players, you are basically throwing hundred dollar bills down a wishing well and hoping for the best.

Learn from the thousands and thousands of companies who have already learned this harsh lesson with blood and tears. Don't do it. There are ways to change the rules of the game while still getting the same class of business intelligence, without compromising on functionality, speed or capacity. But you cannot expect to find it by turning to the traditional BI players who have an over-sized BI developer eco-system for which they need to provide work. This can only be done by younger, innovative BI companies armed with new technologies, fresh ideas and sensible pricing models.

By: Elad Israeli | The ElastiCube Chronicles - Business Intelligence Blog
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