Sunday, October 9, 2011

Designing The Ultimate Business Intelligence Tool

A short time ago I was contacted regarding a blog by Jaime Brugueras(1), discussing what he feels is lacking in the current crop of Business Intelligence (BI) tools. I was asked to provide my feedback via blog post and hopefully start up a discussion.

Everything which Brugueras describes in his blog would comprise the ultimate BI tool. He clearly highlights key pain points felt by all levels of user and creates the framework by which these could be addressed. In spite of his observations, I feel that the nature of the market and current BI tool landscape prevents these recommendations from being realized.

The core argument of Brugueras' blog can be summed up as follows: Business Intelligence tools need to be easier to use, more comprehensive in nature, predictive of future outcomes and cheap enough that even the smallest businesses can afford it. He goes on to advocate for tools that are more sophisticated than a team of IT professionals could program, but simple enough for a lay person to configure.

He notes that "tools available today are relatively complex and require some level of programming", yet a few lines later declares that "an effective BI tool allows for seamless integration of data across... CRM, accounting and point-of-sale software". He laments, however, that current BI tools are "unable to integrate data from all sources".

While multiple tools may output into similarly-formatted CSV files, the database from where these exports originate don't all have the same schema. There exists no universal key to link multiple data sources, and few companies are willing turn themselves into information providers by facilitating others usage of their data.

Many would rebut my previous statement by calling my attention to APIs; how companies like Google, foursquare and Twitter make their data available to the outside world. They would be correct, save for one key point: the user accommodates, as opposed to dictates, the format of the API. If you don't like how Twitter has named a particular variable, then too bad for you. A company like Google isn't going to change their data structure simply because you ask nicely.

When you consider that every company out there has their own special flavor of API, the dream of "an effective BI tool (that) allows for seamless integration of data" simply goes up in smoke. Every time a provider comes along, you will either need to adapt your BI tool to accept their data, or ask them to conform to your standard. The former is far more likely than the latter, but doing the former requires programmers and programmers cost money.

It is not difficult to see the relationship between cost and compatibility. Being more compatible requires a larger programmer base, which in turn requires more capital. The resulting tool would have to be heavily ad-supported, or sell at a price point sufficient to cover ongoing development costs. Very quickly you enter into the realm of enterprise-level solutions, where even the traditionally free Google Analytics has started charging $150,000/year for a Premium service level. This price point is clearly far outside the realm of affordability for the majority of small businesses.

The author advocates for an all encompassing, low-cost solution aimed at the SMB market. He wants a tool that is user friendly, inexpensive and easy to use, featuring automatic integration with multiple data sources that is predictive of future outcomes. He acknowledges that end-users "are not likely to be able to program their needs", yet advocates the development of modular software in anticipation of every possible need. These BI tools must be action oriented, distilling complicated tasks like customer retention, inventory management and social media communication down to the simple click of a button. While wonderful in concept, I don't believe that all will ever be within a single tool.

Apple products, be it the iPhone, iPad or iPod, are famous for working well together. Apple accomplishes this by controlling every step of the process, and knowing exactly what goes into every piece of hardware. They can then perfectly tailor their software to work within the hardware's specifications, producing a very attractive product offering. However, a Mac falls flat when trying to run software originally written for a PC. With Apple reticent to license out their iOS to third party developers, don't expect to see this product-line unity augmented or replicated anytime soon.

There are only two ways that Brugueras' ideal BI tool could come to pass: A unifying open-source project of unprecedented scope or one single (for profit) company willing to take users cradle-to-grave for all their business software needs.

While I don't think that a massive open-source project could appear, I make a point to never say never. The cynic in me just doesn't see it, though. A single company creating a full-feature, A-to-Z Business Intelligence tool isn't very likely, either. The barrier to entry isn't so high that somebody wouldn't try and come up with a "me too" product offering.

I'm not here to preach about what my ideal Business Intelligence tool would be, because I don't believe that there can ever be a one-size-fits-all tool. You'll never get enterprise-level features in a cheap/free product, either because of the associated development costs or due to the simple inability for small businesses to devote the required time to such a far reaching tool.

Take your prototypical small business as an example, where employees generally wear more than one hat. It's likely that your "web guy" will not only be responsible for website design and SEO, but also for PPC and SEM and possibly copy writing for both the online channel and traditional corporate communications. Ask yourself, will this overworked individual be able to devote the time required to use a highly-sophisticated BI tool?

Much like clothing, creating something that is one-size-fits-all typically results in a garment which is a poor fit for 99% of the population. When you buy a suit, most people require that the pants be hemmed or the jacket taken in. Few people are truly "off the rack", so why do we expect the same from our BI tools?

There exist tools that work very well for small business, which scale well and can accommodate the business as it grows. They don't have the features of an enterprise-level tool, but small businesses don't have the bandwidth to use all those features anyway. Rather than devote time to chasing the dream of the perfect tool, end-users should focus on better expressing their BI tool needs. The corporate world has been quite successful at recognizing needs and designing products to meet them. I have every confidence that several different vendors will step up and provide targeted solutions, provided the requirements are clear and properly documented by the eventual end-users.