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A Simple Plan:
Embracing Simplicity Can Reap Huge Business Intelligence Benefits

  Article published in DM Direct Special Report
April 25, 2006 Issue
  By Darren Cunningham and Timo Elliott

You have mountains of data and multiple tools to move, analyze and distribute it. But getting the right bits of information to the right professionals at the right time is still a hit-or-miss proposition. Even when you think you've got the right technology in place, users resist adopting it. Vendors keep pitching new-and-improved feature-laden solutions, but can you justify the expense for what could become yet another underutilized tool? Is there a future in all these features? Or is less the way to deliver more?

The problem is simple. It's complexity. Unfortunately, the solution - more simplicity - is complex and difficult to achieve. But simplicity has always been key to the adoption of new technologies. The prevalence of utilities - electricity, gas, water - and the widespread use of telephones, cars and televisions are all due to how simple they are to use. The Internet existed in public anonymity for two decades before the web browser delivered single-click simplicity. More recently, Apple's ultra-simple iPod launched the era of the digital media player, and Google's simple interface redefined search.

The Cost of Complexity

In contrast, complexity has seriously inhibited the adoption of technologies. Analyst and consulting firms have measured the cost of complexity, and while the numbers vary, the cost to business appears to be astounding. According to the Standish Group, a staggering 66 percent of all IT projects fail or take much longer than expected.1 According to Gartner, every employee wastes an average of one week each year struggling with PCs and applications.2 And IDC predicts that IT complexity will cost U.S. firms $750 billion per year in 2003.3 In the business intelligence (BI) industry, a 2005 Information Week study revealed that ease-of-use issues for less technically savvy employees was the top barrier to BI adoption.4

This degree of complexity means a huge opportunity exists for IT professionals - in both large and small-to-medium enterprises - to introduce more simplicity into their organizations and spur wider adoption of tools that will help the company cut costs, improve user efficiency and productivity, and better align IT with business goals.

The Three Pillars of Simplicity

The root cause of complexity in BI - and in IT generally - is that the industry lacks a clear definition of the concept, making it difficult for simplicity to drive product design. Such a definition must be built upon three fundamental pillars of simplicity: an easy-to-use interface, usable features, and ease of deployment and administration. All three pillars must exist in a truly simplified product, and IT managers should begin pressuring their BI vendors to deliver them.

Easy-to-Use Interface

The user interface is the most obvious area of focus and has received the most attention over the last decade, but we still have a long way to go. In BI, the user interface remains the key limiting factor to adoption. Only about 15 percent of business people in companies actually use a business intelligence tool today, and unless we make significant strides in simplifying the user interface, this is unlikely to change.5 BI vendors continue to assume that users have time to learn programs and to study how to perform complex analyses. But they don't. In 1959, Calvin N. Mooers wrote what became Mooers' Law: "An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him to not have it."6 While specifically addressing having information rather than the pain of getting information, the Law was soon applied to the latter. But in the intervening 40 years, little has changed. Cindi Howson wrote, "Greater ease of use is a key to putting BI successfully in the hands of more users. IT often forgets that users already have other means of making decisions. If BI tools aren't better and faster than established methods, users won't bother with them."7

To make BI more appealing to more users, vendors must begin delivering interface innovations that allow any business user, even those who know absolutely nothing about database queries to get answers to their business questions. BI vendors have made great strides in this direction, mostly though interfaces that make it easy to drag and drop database fields or spreadsheet columns to quickly create interactive analyses. With a minimum of training, users can drag multiple fields to create complex reports, charts, and visual analyses. These tools typically access a variety of SQL and OLAP-based databases as well as Excel spreadsheets. Recently some vendors have begun to broaden beyond the drag and drop query model, which will never be simple enough for the majority of information consumers, by introducing question-based interfaces that let users ask basic or even complex ad hoc questions in everyday business terms, questions such as, "Who were my top five customers from last quarter?" or "Who were my top five customers based on net sales from my region in the past 12 months?" These tools must be intelligent enough to understand that once a new term is selected, a new context is created, ensuring that users never form incorrect queries to the underlying databases.

Another approach to simplifying the BI user interface is to eliminate a separate interface altogether by seamlessly integrating BI into a typical business professional's daily workflow. Often called "operational BI," this enables data, reports and analytical information to be presented directly to users in the context of their various applications and processes. Here we begin to see a shift away from BI merely as tools used to understand historical data and trends toward BI as real-time, process-centric information delivery and analysis. With operational BI, information is delivered where and how people work, and in most cases, the information consumers are not considered BI "users" in the usual sense of the term. Whether it's a process related to risk management, quote-to-cash, labor tracking, procurement, compliance or customer support, BI can play a role within the process or analyzing the process - or the process itself can be decision-centric.

Usable Features

In a recent survey, Microsoft found that most users access only 10 percent of the features offered in Microsoft Word.8 In part the result of engineers exploring the limits of their creativity, in part the fault of product managers wanting to beat the competition in feature comparisons, featuritis infects most software. The clutter of unused features complicates an application and makes it harder for users to find the features they need.

Still, reducing features takes courage because it is counterintuitive. More choice should satisfy more users. But Google is successful in part because its uncluttered interface provides few options. And the iPod is the favored digital media player despite fewer features and a higher cost because it is straightforward to use.

For BI projects, one way to simplify feature presentation without shortchanging advanced users is to provide the right features at the right time. This means providing only basic options at first, then, depending on what the user is doing, providing access to more and more features. For example, within a report, users can be presented with a simple option to look at the report's lineage - where the numbers came from, the definitions being used, the calculations performed, etc. With the click of a button, users can quickly see the information, thereby gaining a new level of trust and confidence in the data. Instead of presenting this option to users as part of a confusing high-level menu that includes all options, this functionality is easily accessible within the report and unobtrusive until needed.

Another way to simplify feature presentation is with guided analysis, which suggests the next steps in a process. Typically referred to as "analytic applications," BI vendors are now delivering prebuilt solutions with functionality that guides users from one analytical display to another based on their role in the organization and the kinds of questions people in that role typically need answered. Better visualization and role-based dashboards that contain this built-in awareness of people's daily information access requirements and workflows allows users to quickly get comfortable with the application, collaborate and share information with other people in the organization, and generally obtain more value and usage out of BI.

Ease of Deployment and Administration

Ease of deployment and administration, the third pillar of simplicity, requires changes by both vendors and IT. Products have become far too complex. They take too long to install and cost too much to maintain. IT must begin to demand less complexity from vendors: "Show me how quickly I can be up and running." "What are you doing to reduce maintenance requirements?"

IT organizations must also change. IT complexity arises from too many platforms, systems and applications. Yet ease of deployment goes hand-in-hand with overall infrastructure simplicity, and IT must ruthlessly consolidate and streamline the existing BI and reporting environment. Standardizing on a single platform for performance management, planning, reporting, query and analysis, and enterprise information management should be the goal. Doing so results in dramatic efficiency gains and cost reductions. It eliminates redundant effort and multiple training and support paths, and ultimately promotes greater confidence in the system.

Organizations should also investigate two trends that promise to deliver increased simplicity. First, Web services make it far easier for companies to develop and maintain more powerful applications by connecting best-of-breed component applications into a single service. For example, developers could link a Web service providing weather data by date and location to a sales database to help ice cream or umbrella retailers unravel the underlying trends causing disjointed sales figures. The continued growth of software as a service will also promote simplicity by eliminating the need to build and maintain an infrastructure for a particular application.

Making Simplicity Happen

Beyond using these pillars of simplicity to drive product design, IT managers should also embrace three key underlying values to help make simplicity in their organizations a reality.

Value 1: It's About People, Not Technology

Eighty-five percent of organizational success is determined not by data and technology, but by people and processes.9 Technology should support people by automating and otherwise improving their processes. If people are forced to adapt to technology, confusion, anger and low adoption rates will result.

It is also important to focus not on data but on business understanding. Turning data into business understanding requires careful attention to workflows and tools. The quality of data must be ensured by investing in processes and tools, such as extraction, transform, and load (ETL) and data quality tools, that ensure a single source of trusted data for all information initiatives. Just as important, users must develop their own trust in the data, which can best be accomplished by enabling users to examine the underlying sources of their dashboards and reports. Key to business understanding is getting the right information to the right person at the right time, which requires an investment in flexible BI tools that deliver information to users in a form they can easily access, understand and use. Finally, BI systems should help users avoid the misuse of data and eliminate the reliance on gut feelings or hand-cranked dashboards by guiding users through their analyses.

Don't be fooled. No matter how simple or intuitive a BI system becomes, adoption will always require some degree of education about the benefits of the system to the user and the organization. Remember, users already have their ways of doing things, and they must be induced to change. BI proponents must evangelize the application, train users - even if the training is a simple Web-based program - promote success, hold seminars, produce newsletters and even hand out awards for the best use of BI - all to generate sufficient knowledge and momentum to compel users to explore the true potential of BI.

Staying focused on people - on their processes and business understanding - will help you keep your BI applications simple.

Value 2: Simplicity Must Be a Best Practice Across All IT Projects

All IT projects must be seen as part of the same continuum and follow the same simplicity-based best practices. To do this, senior executives must be engaged as champions of simplicity. In addition, IT and business users who have intimate knowledge of what people do everyday and what they need to do it better or more efficiently must be involved in the design of BI projects. This is best accomplished through a BI competency center where business users, analysts and developers work together to correlate people and processes with the available BI solutions and the goals of specific projects.

Value 3: It's About Long-Term Business Value, Not Cost

According to Gartner, a key contributor to poor IT investment performance is that executives often focus on a quick and simple payback, an approach more suited to evaluating tools for a factory than assessing the value of IT to a business.10 The value of IT is pervasive and complex. According to IDC, 96 percent of ROI from IT comes in the form of business process enhancements and productivity-related benefits, with an average payback period for successful projects of one year, and a total ROI of 430 percent.11

50 percent of companies that implemented dashboards achieved savings of more than $500,000 to greater than $1 million, and 50 percent achieved an ROI in one year or less.12 While the total value of an IT improvement is harder to calculate, BI projects must be assessed this way; otherwise, businesses risk approving projects that will fail while not approving projects that could deliver significant long-term benefits.

This attitude may also affect the investment in simplicity because, at first, the costs may seem high: putting new tools in place, standardizing on a single BI platform, taking time to design BI projects with a contextualized feature set, implementing training programs, and so on add up. But the investment in simplicity is really just a small percentage increase over the initial cost of a project, while the benefits will be significant and long term.

Starting Today

Delivering simplicity won't be easy. Even vendors that have adopted simplicity as a core design philosophy have only scratched the surface of potential innovation. Simplicity requires IT to make significant changes in how it purchases products and develops projects. Much can be accomplished quickly if IT adopts a clear definition of simplicity, then gets executive management to champion this definition and actively promote the values that will ensure that simplicity shapes all thinking around information initiatives.


  1. Standish Group. "2003 Chaos Chronicles Report" West Yarmouth, Massachusetts: Standish Group, 2003.
  2. Andreas Kluth. "Make it Simple." The Economist, 28 October 2004.
  3. Business Intelligence Survey of 300 Business Technology Professionals. Spring 2005.
  4. "Business Intelligence Survey of 300 Business Technology Professionals." InformationWeek, Spring 2005.
  5. Kluth.
  6. Calvin Mooers. Remarks during a panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the American Documentation Institute. Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, October 24, 1959.
  7. Cindy Howson. "Flying High with BI." Intelligent Enterprise, September 2005.
  8. Bradley L. Jones. "Product Overload: Microsoft." developer.com, 16 September 2005.
  9.  John McKean. Information Masters: Secrets of the Customer Race. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.
  10. "Total Value of Opportunity: The Real Measure for BI." Gartner Business Intelligence Summit 2004, Stamford, CT.
  11. The Financial Impact of Business Analytics. " Framingham, MA: IDC, 2002.
  12. Judith Hurwitz. "Dashboards - Enabling Insight and Action." Waltham, MA: Hurwitz & Associates, 2005.

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI), Query & Reporting, ROI and Scorecards and Dashboards.

Darren Cunningham is the director of enterprise product marketing at Business Objects. In his six years at Business Objects he has managed the product marketing responsibilities for the company's analytic applications, data integration and BI technologies. Prior to joining Business Objects, Cunningham was responsible for product management and product marketing at OLAP @Work Inc, a company acquired by Business Objects. He can be reached at darren.cunningham@businessobjects.com.

Timo Elliott is senior director of strategic marketing at Business Objects, a San Jose-based developer of business intelligence solutions. He can be reached at timo.elliott@businessob jects.com.

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