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Opinion: The trouble with 'business intelligence'

10th Feb 2010
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Aqilla's Hugh Scantlebury is fed up with evangelists who tout "business intelligence" as the answer to all managers' information problems.

What’s the best BI application you know?

The biggest majority of people would probably reply Google, followed by the accountant’s favourite, Excel. In their different ways, both applications give you access to a wide range of insights on a particular business with just a few keystrokes and clicks.

Why doesn’t the software that is supposed to help us make sense of our business have the same impact and deliver the decision-making information we need?

Experience suggests that disillusionment with BI is a side-effect of unfulfilled expectations raised by software sales people, probably brought about by the unforeseen complexities of implementing “traditional” BI systems. Many BI projects may have fallen victim to excessive cost, but more have withered away because the end-users were given the keys to a complicated, multidimensional analysis system that few had the training or inclination to exploit.

We’ve been down a similar road with customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Thousands of companies have jumped through all the hoops of implementing them, only to let them waste away from neglect once it became apparent that they hadn’t wrought the expected transformation in sales and profitability.

Some of the blame for this situation has to be laid at the feet of industry analysts who dream up abstract software methodologies such as CRM and BI that mean nothing to the people who use the programs. There’s an obsession with the capabilities and design of new tools, but users don’t care about that - they just want the answers. The focus of business application should be what it does, not how it does it.

The typical reporting accountant is caught between these two camps and in many cases is conditioned by out of date practices designed to compile monthly management accounts and board-level reporting packs. The task generally comes down to collecting, compiling and distributing Excel spreadsheets.

A lot of this management data is still distributed and consumed on sheets of A4 paper, with costly plastic covers and nice spiral binders; onlrarely consulted by the executives who receive it.

Why not use the capabilities of the web to give someone a subset of the data they can review online at any time? Business managers always want answers to archane questions and ask finance for the answers on a spreadsheet. But a purchasing manager might want to see status of a particular supplier; they’re more interested in product quality, value for money and whether the supplier is fulfilling the terms of the contract. Will a statistical snippet of BI data tell them if they are?

Business managers want answers from their business software and too often that’s not what they get.

What makes the situation worse is that BI is almost universally presented as an additional incremental cost. If I was a customer, I wouldn’t be very happy about buying a business accounting system and then having to pay extra for business information.

Business intelligence should be integral to business software – ideally with built-in traffic signs and dashboards the manager can view even when they’re out of the office. Just as with standard reporting and equiries, BI should be a core component in any business system.

About the author
Hugh Scantlebury is a director of of the web-based financial software developer Aqilla. Scantlebury has worked within the accountancy software industry for more than 20 years and has observed its development from senior positions with Kewill Systems, Systems Union (Infor), Sage and Foundation Systems.


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