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2. Business Intelligence

Advanced search agents and next-gen BI software will dramatically change the way finance employees -- and a lot of other workers -- do their jobs.
Marie Leone, | US
October 7, 2002

Brief: Her name is Seven, and she lives inside of Rick's computer on the Cognos Web Services Web site. When Rick arrives at the office in the morning, he asks Seven to log him on to the company system. He then asks Seven a list of questions about product sales, sales ranking, and returned goods. Seven almost always has answers.

What It Is: So who — or what — the heck is Seven? The digitized face that shows up on Rick's computer and answers his question is what's known as an avatar. In short, an avatar in an advanced form of intelligent search agent. Such agents access internal (and sometimes external) databases, collecting data. The information is then analyzed and presented to a user.

Skinny: While no longer the province of science fiction, avatars like Seven are still a pretty innovative use of business intelligence (BI) software. And right now, BI is about as hot a topic as you can find in the financial software sector.

Michael Morrison, vice president of the finance group at Ottawa-based BI software maker Cognos Inc., says that Seven should not be a CFOs first foray into BI. Finance executives, he says, should focus on taking care of the basics first — getting control of company data, centralizing systems, using the Web to scour up competitive intelligence. He also says BI can help finance executives climb out of "Excel Hell" — that is, the almost slavish dependence on static spreadsheets.

Non-dynamic reports are fine for income statements, notes Andrew Coutts, CEO of another Ottawa-based BI software company, Databeacon Inc. But he says that productive BI is driven by the self-serve discovery process, in which initial search results trigger new customized database queries — and answers.

One for-instance: a company's planning system alerts the CFO that its Singapore operation is producing 20 percent less than what the budget calls for, while the U.S. operation is 20 percent over budget. By drilling down and checking the reasons for the mismatch — say, a labor strike in Singapore — and the logistics schedules and costs, the CFO can take action. "Taking action based on BI is Nirvana for a CFO," declares Morrison.

If so, then expect some very enlightened finance decisions over the next few years. As companies increasingly store business and transaction data in a data warehouse's central depository — or in databases linked via middleware — expect to see a big pickup in the use of BI.

What's more, the Internet will have many executives striving to push BI systems to the rank and file. Indeed, Coutts says corporate adopters of business intelligence systems should focus on disseminating information, not collecting every scrap of data that's out there and stuffing into a data repository. Where BI is concerned, quantity is not necessary quality.

Until recently, BI has been the purview of enterprise-level knowledge workers. At the average company, that means about 15 employees have had access to business intelligence systems. But Coutts says the next wave of BI will be for mass consumption.

Getting employees to embrace such systems won't be easy, however, unless they're easy to access (Web-based) and easy to use. Coutts says that means future BI applications must require "no training, no manual reading, and no installation." If the system drives users away, he points out, the right questions will never be asked. As Coutts points out: "Most people don't know what they don't know."

ETA: Two years.