The BI industry has always failed to understand and support its real customers. With few exceptions, BI product vendors and consultancies continue to be acquainted primarily with IT. This is a comfortable, compatible relationship, for BI and IT both tend to see the world from an engineering-oriented, techno-centric perspective. But the BI industry’s real customers are the folks who actually use BI tools to transform data into the meaningful information they need to make better decisions. Although some of these folks work in IT, most do not. Most are not software engineers. Most are not technologists. Most are people who have a job to do that requires an awareness of what’s going on and how they might influence it, which is primarily gleaned from data. To do this, they need tools that enlighten.
In the past, when the BI industry focused exclusively on building an infrastructure for decision support by developing technologies that acquire, improve, store, and dispense massive amounts of data at high speeds, it was perhaps legitimate to engage primarily with IT. Today, however, the BI industry can no longer sit comfortably in locked rooms filled with servers, discussing bits and bytes with their IT comrades. Most organizations that have purchased BI solutions now know that they need more than BI infrastructure—they need to make sense of all that data they’re collecting, most of which today serves as a massive paper weight. Unfortunately, the BI vendors that helped build the infrastructure can’t use the same perspective, knowledge, and skills that made them successful in the past to produce data sensemaking (analytics) and communication tools. They must now shift from an engineering-oriented, techno-centric mindset to one that is design-oriented and human-centric. They must venture into unfamiliar territory. If they don’t, they’ll be left behind. Unfortunately, most of the major BI players haven’t realized this yet. Before they can begin to make the shift, they must first wake up.
I was prompted to write these words when I read a recent blog post by Boris Evelson of Forrester Research entitled “BI vs. Analytics.” Despite my impassioned disagreement with Evelson several months ago when he attempted to list the features of “advanced data visualization solutions” without first developing an understanding of data visualization, I found myself shouting “Amen” when I read the first two sentences of his recent blog entry:
In my definition—and believe it, I am fighting and defending it every day—analytics has always been, and will always be part of BI.
Indeed it has, at least by definition. Unfortunately, only in recent years have a few vendors managed to make analytics a part of BI in terms of actual analytical functionality. As I continued to read Evelson’s blog, however, I soon stumbled over the following statement: “Today most of the top BI vendors do have…advanced analytics…functionality, so it’s really a commodity now.” Apparently Evelson and I still see things quite differently. Analytics are now being claimed but not actually supported by most BI vendors. What most of them call analytics is so far from actual data sensemaking, it would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic. Analytics is not and never will be a commodity (that is, a good “which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market,” according to Wikipedia).
Evelson is not unique as a BI industry thought leader who fails to understand analytics. Few BI industry analysts and thought leaders have ever actually done the work of a data analyst. They’ve written ETL code, they’ve planned and managed BI implementations, they’ve developed reports, they’ve developed BI methodologies and strategies, and they’ve learned the intricacies of BI technologies, but they’ve never actually dipped below the surface of data sensemaking. What I’m saying is that most of BI’s prominent voices have at best a vague understanding of analytics, so they’re not the people you ought to be listening to for insight and advice in this particular realm. Only a few new experts with actual experience in analytics have raised their voices within BI circles in recent years—people like Tom Davenport and Jeanne Harris, the authors of Competing on Analytics and Analytics at Work. Their efforts are complementing statisticians and information visualization experts to raise the banner of BI’s ultimate purpose: data sensemaking. These are the voices that must be raised to a higher volume than those of the past if BI hopes to fulfill its original promise and ultimate goal—helping organizations function more intelligently by basing their decisions on evidence contained in data. The opportunity is now; the door is open. Not everyone in the BI industry, however, will walk through it.