Focus on Operational BI: Q&A With Information Builders' Gerald Cohen - InformationWeek

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Focus on Operational BI: Q&A With Information Builders' Gerald Cohen

Despite industry consolidation, business intelligence is not a commodity utility, insists Gerald Cohen, CEO and founder of Information Builders. Among the largest independent BI vendors remaining, the company focuses on operational BI, and as Cohen explains, that means looking beyond data warehousing and conventional reporting and delivery methods.

Will the business intelligence market significantly change in the wake of the acquisitions of Hyperion, Business Objects and Cognos?

Gerald Cohen, CEO, Information Builders Gerald Cohen, CEO, Information Builders
I don't think it will change that much. Most people prefer to buy best-of-breed in a category like BI. It's not a utility where you can say, okay, throw that in, too. Once a product becomes a distinct category, people pay more attention to what product they select. I think the buying process will be pretty much the same in the sense that companies will go out and interview vendors to see what fits their needs.

In what sorts of implementations does Information Builders (IBI) stand out?

We specialize in larger-scale applications. It's what we call Operational BI, meaning, distributing operational information to lots more people who can use it to make better decisions. If you're looking at, say, 3,000 users, you're starting to get into a large distribution, but it's also a question of what kind of data you're talking about. With our iWay integration technology, we can tap into operational data — information that isn't in a data warehouse — so you can make decisions based on current information.

I take it you wouldn't agree with those who characterize BI as a rear-view mirror?

That's really a complaint about conventional reporting tools that only work off of data warehouses. Let's not criticize the industry because there are some poor performers. We sell warehouse analysis, which is common, but we also offer access to operational data that's not in a warehouse — live, production information from operational systems. It could be a credit card system or a payment system or a general ledger or an inventory system. We have adaptors for hundreds of systems, and we can take the data as it's coming in and tell you, for example, what's selling right now.

I will say that there is a trend in which organizations are warehousing more frequently. Many people now reconstruct the warehouse nightly. That's not operational, but it's pretty close. If your only way to get information is through a warehouse, well, then, you might have to update it every night.

There's lots of discussion of performance management these days. What does that term mean to you?

Performance management is a hot subcategory. Is it BI? Yes and no. What we see happening even in query and reporting, if that's what you would call BI, is that the delivery of information is moving to dashboards. A dashboard is basically a collection of objects on a screen that gives you the essence of something very quickly. To me, performance management is a type of dashboard that has a specific purpose, such as delivering performance management metrics. The point is that the broader movement is toward dashboards. The problem with conventional reporting is that it's a linear process. With a dashboard, the latest data is already there, and the dashboards are getting much more elaborate and packed with information.

The other thing I'd say about performance management is that it's 95 percent financial performance management. That's what most vendors are talking about. It's almost always an add-on to the financial planning and budgeting function for a very interesting reason; performance management requires an underlying model. That model is called a scorecard, and that's what ties everything together. Most people use the balanced scorecard, but there are others. In the financial area, the model is almost predetermined; you have an organizational structure and you have budgets. The budgets are the goals, and you can look at how close you were to reaching those goals and why you did or didn't get there. It's very straightforward when there's a budget, but it's not easy for organizations to come up with models and goals outside of finance because there's no budget to turn to.

IBI focuses on operational rather than financial performance management. So how do you get around the modeling challenge?

We have a product called Performance Management framework, which is a Norton/Kaplan-approved scorecard. We also have a new product called Performance Management Metrics in which we leave out the modelling tools but give you the metrics. For a lot of organizations, building a model is beyond them, but they're still interested in the metrics. We have hundreds of precalculated metrics for leading industries. That's more appropriate for the nonfinancial areas of an organization when they just can't figure out how to do the scorecards.

IBI recently introduced a mobile BI platform called WebFocus Mobile Favorites. How do you see mobile delivery changing BI deployments?

It's possible that the next major change in computing will be the move from laptops to hand-held devices. Even today, business people are choosing not to carry their laptops when they travel. They just carry their hand-held device, but they still want access to what they're used to seeing on their laptops. Now we can't give you an entire dashboard on a small screen, but what we can do is give you access to your favorite elements of that dashboard, and you can enter parameters to get hundreds of different reports.

Today, only about 20 percent of users have browsers on their hand-held devices, but within a couple of years, nearly 100 percent will have browsers and they'll be that much more powerful. That's going to add another couple hundred million people to the Internet, and they'll be able to do anything that want on these devices as they're travelling. That is definitely going to have an impact in ways that we don't even envision. All we can do is try to get there in many small steps.

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