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Reality IT:
A Big Myth about BI Needs

online columnist Gabriel Fuchs     Column published in DMReview.com
January 6, 2005
 
  By Gabriel Fuchs

At my job, we have managers. Not all that surprisingly, some of them really want to know what is going on in our company. Enter business intelligence (BI), which is supposed to ease the life of our managers in their ever-ongoing search for the facts and figures behind the business. When presenting today's "standard" BI package - which is often comprised of dashboards, OLAP analyses, ad hoc querying and report generators - the classical "BI pyramid" still tends to be very much used by the BI solution providers. The BI pyramid shows how to distribute the different BI tools between different user groups (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: The BI Pyramid

According to the BI pyramid, which has now been around basically since BI became a hot topic some 10 years ago, senior management wants a global overview of their business. This is best presented in what used to be called executive information systems (EIS) but has now evolved into so-called dashboards.

Middle management, however, needs more distributed yet detailed data, and they should, therefore, get the pleasure to work directly with OLAP for analyses and ad hoc query tools for flexible reporting. The people on the operational level, finally, will do best with standardized, detailed, preformatted reports provided by an automatic report engine.

This is all very nice and it allows a positioning of the different BI tools that often come in today's BI package. Add data mining for the specialized analysts, and the picture is complete; even though data mining is rarely, if ever, part of the BI pyramid. Do you see anything fundamentally flawed with this picture? If not I will give you some advice: change jobs.

I have yet to see a senior manager that is content with an overview of the business activities - unless he or she is incompetent. Any and every competent senior manager that I have met always wants detailed data for specific operations - and often on a regular basis. Dashboards are great for management meetings, but whoever runs a company based on this is not running a company for long.

I have yet to see the middle managers that indulge in OLAP and ad hoc querying more than others in the organization. Middle managers are not more computer literate than anyone else, and OLAP and ad hoc querying do demand more computer skills from the users.

Finally, who on an operational level feels happy about only having standardized and detailed reports? These employees are also interested in the overall health of the company, and they want an aggregated overview as well.

So, the popular BI pyramid looks nice - especially when it comes in fancy colors - but it is rather imperfect. Admittedly, more and more BI solution providers are beginning to realize that the reality is a bit more multidimensional than the BI pyramid: top managers also want detailed data and operational staff wants to have the overall picture. The middle managers want and need both detail and overview, and they are not more likely than anyone else to decide to spend and afternoon doing their own ad hoc queries in their office.

Therefore, some are now talking about a redefined repartition of the BI user groups. In this new grouping, we now have the analysts as one significant element. They are the people with the actual expertise to use the BI tool efficiently. The senior managers are still there, using whatever the analysts provide. Middle managers, who are closer to the operational activities, are also using the output of the analysts, albeit often on a differently detailed level compared with the senior managers. The operational employees still get reports, hopefully on both detailed level and an overview, all provided by some automated report engine. Somewhere in all this, the IT department is also involved, ideally as the provider of the BI infrastructure.

After 10 years, some, but not all, have finally realized that BI is as complicated as anything else. The users are as irrational in their needs as they are with anything else. Many of them do like the colorful BI pyramid though and, given its inclusion in BI presentations, it will probably stay on for some years. What it is actually showing up is one of the great myths of BI, though.

Some believe that space aliens helped the Egyptians to build the pyramids - the real ones, that is. I myself do not believe this, and I would say that this is yet another pyramid-related myth, although limited in its extent. I do believe, however, after having seen some rather peculiar BI projects, that some kind of aliens must have been involved in producing them. How else could these applications be so out in the blue, considering their utter lack of any real possibilities to serve its users efficiently?

And by the way, in the real pyramids, the top executive, i.e., the Pharaoh himself, was buried somewhere in the middle, not in the top.

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For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI).

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 Fuchs' own personal experience and imagination, and do not reflect the situation at IBM. He can be reached at gabriel.fuchs@ch.ibm.com.



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