Monday, November 24, 2008

BI 2.0, Next Generation BI, and Everythig New and Improved

My fellow blogger Bhupendra Khanal has an interesting post that mentions the challenges associated with BI 2.0/Information 2.0 (he also plugs OpenI, my open source project, which is much appreciated -- Bhupendra, may OpenI karma come back to you thousand-fold :-) 

Software industry, not unlike any other, contains a lot of hype and probably sometimes even more so with all this 2.0 buzz, which probably seems cool to the industry insiders, but is definitely confusing to the market.

Take BI 2.0 (or Information 2.0) for example - what in the world does it mean? Well, turns out, at the end of the day, to most BI vendors, it means more fancy charts and graphs and dashboards, except this time they'll have rounded corners, larger fonts with brighter colors, and maybe a fit of Flash and/or Ajax thrown in for a good measure to demonstrate live interactivity.

All this is fine and well, but all this is also pure BS if you are not helping your user make better decisions, or informing them of something new.

If BI 2.0 or Information 2.0 is to be seen as the "next generation" (it seems you cant' escape these cliches), then it needs to go beyond charts/graphs/dashboard paradigm. BI applications and tools need to be rooted in the knowledge worker's workflow - and should be cognizant of the types of decisions that need supporting. BI needs to be aware of the domain context - i.e. which industry are you supporting? which area - marketing, finance, operations, research..? Because without this, the best BI can do is to provide nice visuals and hope and pray that the user knows how to translates them into intelligence and action.

But software can be better than that if is stops being lazy. And that's my hope with our work in OpenI. We certainly started in the charts/graphs/dashboards paradigm, so we are as guilty as anybody. But as they say in any 12-step plan, "acceptance" is the first step -- and now, we are moving towards a future of BI software that caters to the root need for intelligence -- i.e. not only that you see your data clearly, but you also see it in your specific business context, and get immediate option to act upon it.

For e.g. a marketing analytics BI application - once it incorporates the data about customers and marketing campaigns and resulting purchases -- should not wait for a user to define dashboards and reports, but rather already provide a suite of analyses that answer the most typical marketer's questions - i.e. how effective are my campaigns , who are my best customers/prospects, and what tactics work the best for individual customer segments? And don't stop there btw -- if you have identified some new and interesting customer segments - it should integrate with an online campaign manager tool to immediately launch new campaigns; or publish the list of your most valuable customers to your e-commerce engine or call center platform which know how to treat them in a special way; etc. etc.

Similar scenarios can be applied to other industries and domains too. We as BI software developers just need to imagine differently. And that's what 2.0, new version, or next generation is all about - next level of imagination.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Donate Blood, Feel Good

I donated blood today at blood centers of the pacific ( They have this new machine they call Alex. As it draws blood, it separates the RBC from plasma in real time (in this picture I took as blood was being drawn, the packet on the right is "whole blood", middle one is separated RBC, and the one on left is plasma) and it puts the plasma back into your veins. Benefits of this are - more RBC gets collected, blood donor stays hydrated, a lot of time is saved compared to old methods of separating the blood cells later in the lab, thus delaying the availability of blood for transfusions.

But most of all, it feels good.

Find your closest donation center and just go. You will be glad you did.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Taking BI Beyond Charts and Graphs

I attended a talk at the monthly BI SIG meeting at SDForum by Christian Marcazzo from Spotfire, now a part of Tibco. I have long admired Spotfire's innovations on data visualization front, so I was curious how they see BI from the whole Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) aspect, and couple of things stood out.

First - if we look at consumer-centric data applications (Zillow, Google Finance, etc.) and compare their interfaces to more traditional enterprise BI applications, it's amazing to see how the latter just doesn't even attempt to look good.

Why is that?

Because enterprise BI app developers aren't under the same pressure to seduce their users like consumer data apps. Zillow, Google Finance, et al live and die by the community they create, so for them, user experience in paramount, and it shows. Most BI apps, on the other hand, are almost developed under the assumption that users are under a “thou shalt always use this BI software” executive order, and as such don't have much leverage in rejecting a software based on poor or sub-optimal user experience.

So they begrudgingly use the BI software for its least interesting/effective use - churn out one report after another. The BI app basically becomes a report production factory.

That brings me to my second point - for BI to be more than charts/graphs/dashboards, it needs to be part of the user's workflow. Now the term "workflow" means a lot of different thing to differnt people, and has recently become a popular box in BI markitechture diagrams - but to me, it basically means that BI app needs to know the various contexts under which its users are using it, and provide a way to add intelligence/insight to the process. BI app by itself should almost be invisible.

Zillow users think of themselves as a home buyers/sellers, not a real estate data analysts. Typical Google Finance users are checking out their portfolio and evaluating stocks, but don't think of themselves as financial analysts. So, why in the world BI applications are hell bent to think of their users are data analyst first, rather than understanding the specific tasks they are trying to accomplish more intelligently?

That's where workflow comes in. BI app needs to understand the nuances of the business domains their users are in, make intelligence available in their task workflow where it's needed, and provide a clear way to act upon that intelligence. Too often we think of BI as a separate app where a user will do analysis, and then the users will jump to other apps where they can take actions -- that's now how users see the world. And without understanding the users, BI apps can't really provide intelligence.

It's time to turn this model around. BI apps should think more like mashups --pull data from any "public" repository with REST like API's, make anlayses available to share and tweak, and make the resulting insights be integrateable to other apps. The more lines get blurred between BI apps and the rest, more successful its adoption is going to be.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Historic Moment for All of Us

I'm not what you'd call religious, but this morning I asked my 5-yr-old and 2-yr-old to join me to pray for Obama's victory.

I'm not always a eager voter, but today both my wife and I were at our local poll station at 8 am.

I'm not a political activist, but today I took the day off so I could make phone calls to get the vote out in FL, OH, PA, MO, CO, and IA. I've never made so many phone calls in a day (close to 500). Last call made was at 6:55 PM PST, literally 5 minutes before polls closed in IA. At times, I felt like a seedy telemarketer, calling people who were already inundated with calls over the past months -- but this election was not a spectator sport, and I'm glad I participated in every way I could.

Regardless of your political affiliation, and whether you voted for Obama or not -- one thing I learned out of all this -- stated so eloquently by Mahatma Gandhi years ago: The only way we can bring about sea change is by "being the change you seek in the world".

For that, I'm thankful to Obama for inspiring millions like me to get involved, and also very hopeful in his presidency. It's a rare moment in history when so many people throughout the world are truly feeling inspired.

Yes We Can :-)