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The rise of agile BI

According to Nobby Akiha, senior vice president at business intelligence (BI) specialist Actuate, for business users to be fully productive they need answers now. And in a world powered by sophisticated analytics tools, there’s no excuse for waiting for monthly management reports…

Nobby AkihaIf there is one theme that sums up the way business intelligence is going, it has to be ‘agility’. And it makes perfect sense.

Why? Because too many organisations still have to wait for the information they need to make important decisions or prepare for meetings. Line of business managers submit a request, then take their place in the queue while dedicated teams of ‘management information’ specialists in the IT department laboriously draw down the required statistics, perform some elaborate analysis and put it all together in a special report using agreed templates…monthly, quarterly or even six months later.

Surely in an advanced information age, powered by unprecedented search, access and graphical presentation capabilities, this is ludicrous.

Fortunately, it is all about to change, driven by this exciting new concept of agile BI (business intelligence). Four factors are propelling this new approach up the agenda, quite apart from the ever-present need for quick and easy data access.

The first is the users’ experience, gained via the internet and social media, which is fuelling demand for and raising expectations for a similar experience in the workplace. The second is for dynamic analytics on the fly – without recourse to any plaintive emails to IT at all. Third, increasingly, users don’t know in advance what information they need – and when they do need it, they can’t afford any delay because the content comes via a third party. Finally, there is the rise of the cloud and ever-richer mobile experience – which have both boosted demand for agile BI and facilitated it.

The more questions business users find they can answer, the more questions they will want to ask. The only way organisations can hope to satisfy such a demand is to embed something like agile BI into their culture, indeed into the very fabric of their organisations, in much the same way that internet search and related behaviour is already built into all our lives now.

Avoiding the employee workaround

Remember, the situation has become more acute now that people no longer need a degree in Computer Science to be able to navigate IT applications and tools, and can readily find the functionality they need on the internet – and increasingly, even build it for themselves. Consider the growing universe of widely available cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) applications, open source tools and other freebie resources which can be instantly accessed or downloaded, promising users the quick fix they need; surely harbingers of new ways of working with data.

The bottom line is that business people are now able to find a way of doing what they need to do, however hard their employer – or the IT department – tries to stop them. This is a reality you have to deal with – and see as an opportunity, not a threat. In other words, it’s far better to build this approach into your central IT strategy than to ignore users’ frustrations and hope that the problem goes away.

If for no other pragmatic reason, it’s impossible – and is likely to be detrimental to the business – to deny or even stop this sort of progress.

We have the technology!

Organisations that don’t want to hold back their employees, or indeed the business, must find a way to extend a similar experience to their employees – even to their customers and suppliers.

Deploying IT resources via a centralised, cloud-based infrastructure (even if the IT systems are kept inhouse for closer control) makes all of this very easy, allowing organisations to recreate an intuitive web-based experience for users. The added advantage of this approach is that remote and mobile users, as well as external third parties, can be given access too, all of which is hugely empowering for a business.

What’s more, modern open source development environments and Web 2.0 tools make deploying intuitive, web-based collaboration platforms with visually-rich presentation features easier than ever.

By putting data in users’ hands, organisations are able to give them more control over what they do with it. Ways to start visualising this include colourful, interactive dashboard features, with plenty of scope for customisation, allowing individuals to ‘slice and dice’ information in a way that is meaningful to them. This improves accuracy as well, by reducing the scope for misinterpretation that can arise when users are poring over spreadsheets with endless columns of figures.

The mobile-centric user experience

If smartphones like the BlackBerry whetted users’ appetites for instant information access on the go, the rise of the iPad and its rival tablets have multiplied that demand at least threefold because of their bigger screens and fuller features.

Now that the sophisticated and dynamic applications built on agile infrastructures exist to accelerate the process of catch-up, organisations hoping to get ahead really shouldn’t wait any longer before seizing the agile BI day.

Like it or not, with all of the rich technology so readily available to them in their personal lives, technologically astute users will take matters into their own hands to get access to the functionality they need to do their jobs more effectively if you don’t give them the functionality they need and expect.

The message needs to come through loud and clear. Embracing, encouraging and embedding agile BI in your business is critical to you helping meet your users’ needs – and avoiding being relegated to the sidelines as more part of the problem than the solution.

Nobby Akiha is senior vice president at business intelligence (BI) specialist Actuate, www.actuate.com

 

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