Business intelligence is one of those buzzwords that made its appearance in the market after a number of different iterations and then almost immediately became one of the most important elements in many organisations’ business and application strategies. Today business intelligence goes way beyond the traditional arena of presenting historical information to business decision-makers and we find it deeply embedded in many of an organisation’s most critical business processes. 

In this industry, it’s not unusual for new technology solutions to come over the horizon, flare up briefly, then crash and burn into oblivion – frequently taking a fair bit of customer investment with it.
There are, however, those solutions that appear and glow dimly for some time before suddenly bursting into a heated and sustainable entity to draws others to itself to become a fully-fledged eco-system.
Business intelligence is one of the latter technology concepts which, having lain almost dormant for a number of years, suddenly appears to have become central to many of an organisations’ most important applications.
“It’s not that long ago that Cognos made its revenue out of desktop copies of its PowerPlay product,” says David McWilliam, MD of Cognos SA.
This desktop-based product – classified at that time as an executive information or decision support system – would have used localised sets of data to build cubes which users could then slice and dice to manipulate information.
Those early systems had limited access to data and were accessible by a single user – usually the MD or another director responsible for steering the company in the right direction.
It wasn’t long before products like PowerPlay were extended to departmental level and executives could get an even better idea of what was going on in the organisation.
“What really put business intelligence on the map was the ability to generate reports,” McWilliam explains.
To generate real and lasting value, however, these collecting and reporting tools needed to be extended to the whole organisation and, while the industry has been making sure that happens, they are have become an integral part of the many companies.
“We’ve made the transition over the last five years, spending millions of dollars on R&D, and elevated these same ideas to the enterprise level,” says McWilliam.
At this level, business intelligence can extract information from a variety of sources, including the ERP system or vertical applications, connecting a variety of different data sources.
Using data from various sources, the application can build a data mart and then generate the different reports required. Importantly, operational data can be incorporated as well, so reports are up-to-the-minute.
Large organisations have an information strategy and have developed disciplines, processes and tools around ensuring that information is centralised, cleaned, monitored and managed – in other words, has value added to it.
The beauty of an enterprisewide business intelligence system is that data from both open standards or proprietary systems can be extracted and integrated at an enterprise level.
“And now the end game has changed,” says McWilliam. “Instead of just wanting access to information, companies are now focusing on performance management around business intelligence. They want to give the right information to people to actually make them more effective.
“Enterprise business intelligence is the basis for performance management, which should enable better planning as well as a way of measuring the effectiveness of that planning through a balanced scorecard.”
Big organisations are also interested in management dashboards as well, McWilliam adds. “These have got to do more than simply paint a picture; they have to be livable.
“Managers need the ability to drill down to an analysis or a report, or even back to the base application if needed to see cause and effect.”
Importantly, business intelligence spans all parts of the organisation. McWilliam explains that corporate performance management is usually driven from the CEO so he can understand the business he is accountable for.
On the other hand, the ERP system, any verticals, as well the reporting and analysis tools are still in the realm of the IT manager.
“And now, more and more knowledge workers are demanding access to more information.”
Corporate performance management is very much the end game, though, says McWilliam, and a lot of integration needs to take place before it can be used as a trusted tool.
“If a company has one ERP system, then it’s easy enough to put a business intelligence subsystem on top of it.
“In big, complex organisations, though, you need to integrate business intelligence into other suppliers’ systems, such as business process management (BPM) – any often this needs to be a two-way street.”
How these systems end up being put together has a lot to do with what the technology supplier finds in the way of legacy systems. from transactional applications to enterprisewide BPM implementation or verticals like CRM.
“CPM and business intelligence tend to sit on the third layer,” says McWilliam. “We need to take the relevant information out of all the systems and also start giving data back.
“In fact, the business intelligence project could be used as the means for integrating disparate systems.”