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World of BI still a ways away from reaching nirvana, says SAP

Despite advancements in the world of BI, we're still a long way off from reaching the nirvana of business intelligence, says one SAP exec.

Business intelligence (BI) has come a long way over the years, spurred by newer technologies like in-memory databases and the creation of applications built around predictive analytics and sophisticated data visualization tools. Where's it all headed? And have those new technologies added more confusion or clarity to the market?

SearchSAP spoke to Dan Kearnan, senior director of marketing for SAP business intelligence and SAP HANA, the company's in-memory database platform, about the evolution of business intelligence in general, and who's driving that change.

You mentioned that we have a ways to go before we reach the 'nirvana of BI.' What do you mean?

Dan Kearnan: I still get tons of questions about trying to map business users' needs with the right BI application and meet their need for real time. There are still lots of questions and strategies yet to be formed. There's still a lot of clutter on the market. If you look at what BI means, nobody can clearly define it as this thing, or these two things, or three things.

Why is that?

Kearnan: If you're looking at a BI implementation, there's a myriad of things to consider. You have to look at all the things you have to map. First, you have to map your entire business user community -- in terms of what they want -- [to] your IT infrastructure, your BI footprint, to see what you have in place from data provisioning, to data quality, all the various data silos, and all the BI entry points. If you have to do that in a fairly large organization, you need people that are not necessarily thought leaders, but are fairly mature in their understanding of mapping the right kind of solution to the right business user need, and aligning that. I think a lot of companies just don't have that knowledge or that background.

So we're not even sure what we're aiming for sometimes, what that ideal looks like?

Kearnan: Well, what is BI? Just operational reporting, where you serve up just basic, standard reports to people, and they're happy? If that's your version of BI, that's [one thing]. You get a lot of companies that still rely on traditional operational reporting to users that don't have much in the way of an ability to do any kind of exploration or self-service. If they need anything, then they have to go back to IT. If that is working, and you don't have a business user community that's screaming, or recognizes the value of data beyond operational reporting, I think you're all set.

What changes the game is if, first of all, you have a business user community coming on board that's starting to demand more, above and beyond simple operational reporting. Because they have different needs, they might need different ways of looking at the data. They might need to bring in sentiment data, or maybe they need to look at shop-floor data through machine sensors. IT might consider that to be outside the scope of what they understand BI to be.

So the business community is the primary driver of change, rather than IT.

Kearnan: I've seen more drivers come from the discontent and dissatisfaction coming from the business user community, in whatever line of business [they're in], whether it's for real time, different types of data, than what IT with their technology or current mindset is able [to] deliver.

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Unless there's that driver, [IT] would be happy to keep an implementation in place that's working, and just tweak it.

And what happens if they don't get it?

Kearnan: A lot of people are doing runarounds from IT, trying to get data in other ways because the business user community is saying, "I can't live in this traditional past of basic operational reporting," so we're going to go to the Tableaus and the QlikTechs of the world and do our own quick, ad-hoc kind of analysis. That might work in the short term, but then you lose your one version of the truth.

You've spoken about system integrators (SI) helping customers clarify some of that confusion at the customer level. What is SAP itself doing to make things better?

Kearnan: The goal of SIs and SAP is to work with customers to understand where they are with their BI strategy, and what that looks [like] going forward, in terms of a roadmap and future needs. There's that discovery stage. Both SIs and SAP play a key role, throughout the sales cycle, throughout the customer engagement cycle. [But if a company chooses to listen more or work with an SI and not SAP], it's not because they don't like SAP's advice. They tend to do it because they already have a trusted relationship [with that SI] and they continue to [call on that] relationship to guide them.

What else can people do to create a coherent BI strategy?

Kearnan: I would look at other data points, other thought leaders to help provide a holistic understanding of what this all means for them -- everything from top-tier analyst firms to a whole host of others that have entered the field. Armed with that, you can go back to SAP and supplement what they're saying, or ask for the conversation to be taken in a different direction.

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