I recently spoke at an event in Melbourne, Australia that was sponsored by Innogence, a consultancy that exclusively supports SAP business intelligence implementations. My presentation was followed by two others: one of Innogence’s customers described his experience of turning around an SAP Business Objects (hereafter referred to simply as SAP) implementation that was failing, and an employee of SAP previewed coming attractions.
The fellow from SAP didn’t describe anything new in the realm of data visualization, but referred to Crystal Xcelsius (recently re-branded into two products, SAP Crystal’s Dashboard Design and Presentation Design) and Business Objects Explorer as SAP’s current datavis offerings. Both of these products demonstrate SAP’s lack of expertise in this area. What he featured most was a new in-memory technology called HANA, which promises to speed up access to data considerably, but at significant cost. While he was describing HANA, I couldn’t help but fear that it might at best enable a faster trip to nowhere.
Big, old, traditional BI companies are good at producing technologies that enhance the infrastructure of business intelligence—more and faster—but not the actual use of data in ways that lead to greater intelligence. Being big, focused primarily on technology from an engineering perspective, and devoutly sales driven makes it difficult for companies like SAP to develop useful tools for activities that support decision making: data exploration, sensemaking, and communication. To meet this challenge, they must shift their focus from technology to the humans who use it—our needs and abilities—and expand their perspective to embrace design. They must commit their efforts to what actually works, rather than silly, shiny features that fill their existing products with smoke and mirrors.
It will be hard for large organizations to turn their ships against the tide of tradition into unfamiliar waters. If it can be done at all, it will take time. Will SAP and other big vendors find their way into the analytics age? If so, will they do it in time, or will analytics become the exclusive realm of smaller and more agile vendors, leaving traditional BI companies in the back room to maintain the infrastructure (data collection, transformation, cleansing, warehousing, and production reporting)? Only time will tell, but I recently received a glimmer of hope that SAP just might discover the path forward. I had lunch three weeks ago with John Armitage, who has been tasked with improving the user experience of SAP’s information visualization offerings across the board. I’ve known John for a few years, and although I don’t know him well, I believe he has the perspective, experience, and skills that are needed to give this big ship a new bearing. John is a designer with years of experience working in the field of usability. He’s one of the guys inside the company who quietly thank me when I point out flaws in SAP’s data visualization capabilities and challenge them to do better.
If big, old, traditional BI companies are going to find their way from the back room to the living room and kitchen where people live, they’ll need people like John Armitage, and they’ll need to listen to them. John’s role can’t be token; it must help drive the organization.
Despite the acid that often drips from my tongue when I speak out against SAP’s contrived and clueless attempts so far to support data visualization, I’m not rooting for them to fail. That is, unless they continue to promote hollow promises about dysfunctional products, in which case they’ll deserve to fail and I’ll gladly bid them goodbye.