BI Islands or a Whole BI Archipelago?
At my job, we have business intelligence and we have business intelligence. Everywhere. Thanks to our commitment to do a good day's work every once in a while or at least be better than other departments, some of us have turned to business intelligence (BI) solutions. This is all done in the hope that we shall be more efficient. And efficient we are. So efficient, in fact, that we now have many different BI applications from many different BI vendors. These different applications are often used for the same purposes, e.g., reporting or advanced analyses. Oh yes, we are very efficient in installing BI applications. The result of it all may, in the best of circumstances, allow specific departments to become better in their work. However, it does not allow the workplace as a whole to be very efficient in reporting and analyses activities. In other words, we are suffering from BI islands, i.e., many unconnected BI applications.
It has to be said though that to the outside world we can say that we are very advanced because we have it all: ad hoc querying, OLAP, data mining, data visualization, statistical packages, data marts, ODS, data warehouse - you name it. We even have several different solutions doing the same thing! On top of that we also have Excel, even though we do not brag about that. Excel is just not as cool as other "real" BI tools, no matter that it is the most widely used application for many of our BI activities.
BI islands are often the result of having too many people within the organization being able to decide on what BI application to use. Whereas one application is unlikely to correspond to all needs, eight different BI applications all doing reporting is not beneficial either. Sometimes you even have a situation where a department knows what BI applications exist within the organization and still decides to implement yet another more or less identical solution. This new unnecessary solution is bought purely for political reasons. The concerned department may want to show that they can do their job better, which will be possible with this additional BI solution. As a whole, the organization is losing money on such behavior and the IT department risks going crazy - unless, of course, they are also involved in this "my BI is better than yours" frenzy. It might be good for the national economy though, as BI vendors can profit and prosper.
What are the practical results of BI anarchy, resulting in BI islands? Well, for one thing you can forget about a unified business language, meaning that you will go on arguing about what the report figures actually mean. Exactly what BI was supposed to solve. You can also look forward to some political discussions about why you are using whatever tool you have when others are not. IT, who most likely promote their own solutions which tend to be good for their architecture but not necessarily good for the business users, will likely hate anything that they did not decide on.
You will also have the power users who sail the boat between all these BI islands. These power users, or BI sailors, want to have everything installed on their computer so that they can personally choose what to use. Then these BI sailors try to distribute their results to others who do not necessarily possess the same program and, therefore, cannot read the results. The Tower of Babel analogy becomes clear. In the end, Excel becomes the solution of record because it is the only thing that everyone has installed.
I once listened to a roundtable discussion by some BI managers. One of them, in his desire to impress the rest of us, said that they had created 250 OLAP cubes providing 1,000 reports. Personally, I have rarely heard anything so catastrophic. On average, each OLAP cube does no more than four reports. Why use OLAP to do reports in the first place? What about communication among these 250 cubes? At least this BI manager was very proud. He did not have BI islands though; he had a whole BI archipelago. Not many have that.
However, on a departmental level, BI may do wonders no matter what other departments are using. Reports and analyses can become very streamlined and efficient within the department. This of course presupposes that the necessary underlying data that is to be exploited actually exists, whether it comes from a data warehouse, data mart, or whatever. It is when you want to communicate with other departments that problems often arise. For as long as there are a multitude of different non-coordinated BI applications in use within the organization, all you get are BI islands. If you really are "advanced" (totally out of control), you can even boast about having a complete BI archipelago.
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Gabriel Fuchs is a senior consultant with IBM. His column Reality IT takes an ironic look at what real-world IT solutions often look like - for better or for worse. The ideas and thoughts expressed in this column are based on Fuch's own personal experience and imagination, and do not reflect the situation at IBM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.