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Why business intelligence fails and how to fix it

Business intelligence (BI) has been touted for years as the next big thing in e-business. However, the current enterprise approach to BI is failing.

Business intelligence (BI) has been touted for years as the next big thing in e-business. However, the current enterprise approach to BI is failing, according to Sven Jensen, vice president with Cambridge, Mass.-based consultancy Sapient Corp. Jensen has a long history of working with SAP in general and BI in particular. SAP is heavily invested in the BI space, thanks to its 2007 acquisition of Business Objects, and talked to Jensen to find out how companies can better take advantage of BI.

At a high level, what's the state of BI today?

Sven Jensen: We need to get to the stage of transforming information into value. That's trite, but that's where BI has failed. What I've seen over the past few years in the SAP space is tech-focused BI, not business-focused BI.

What's business-focused BI?

Jensen: Business-focused BI is about being able to make objective decisions faster.

Can you offer a real-world example?

Jensen: When I was at a sports company in the Northwest [Nike, where Jensen used to work], we knew that oil prices were going up 12 months down the road. We used BI to provide transparency into the drivers: "Here's my profitability and revenue, here are the coming changes, how can we act before things happen?" I want to have leading indicators into profitability so I can change my behavior in time. It's all about changing a company's behavior.

Why aren't more companies leveraging BI in this way?

Jensen: Large companies don't necessarily integrate BI into business processes. There are many manual steps. Also, senior leaders don't use BI pervasively. By the time you get the information, there's no time to react.

What's the remedy?

Jensen: One idea is for executives to have an information portal. For example, it could tie a profitability report into unstructured information that's out in the market. If profitability goes down, it's tied to a report that provides you with information about price increases in oil or freight. The senior leadership can turn this context into decisions. SAP has done a lot of work with this internally. Their senior leadership has an information portal that integrates this information.

Who does the work of finding the unstructured information?

Jensen: That's for business analysts to do. Right now, they're busy writing reports, not being business analysts. Generally, many companies have a large staff just to keep BI running. They're ensuring uptime, correcting reports, pushing reports to users.

And you envision a more strategic role for BI-oriented employees?

Jensen: The future role of the true analyst is to pick information and tie it against what's coming out of the system. BI's not a data dump. It's a source of information for analysts to tie against context.

How does one automate some of the manual features of BI?

Jensen: I propose embedded analytics integrated into business processes. In business compliance, for example, you can have BI detect an event violation and launch a corporate workflow that will trigger action. This way, you can prevent violations before they happen.

What's a good model of a BI ecosystem within an enterprise?

Jensen: A BI competency center, which is a combination of IT professionals and business analysts.

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