by Donald MacCormick, Antivia

Some things become more obvious the more you think about them. One great example is William Gibson’s statement -“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”. A great real-world example of this is the evolution in business intelligence from “dashboards” to “BI apps”.

Traditionally, dashboards were modelled on the concept of a car dashboard, an at-a-glance display of all the information you need to manage a particular task. Unfortunately, driving a car (which is a real-time activity requiring only two indicators, namely speed and remaining fuel) is a bad analogy for running a business, which has many more indicators and (at least at a management level) does not require the instant, real-time action demanded by driving.

This additional complexity and increased time to make decisions means that, in the business world, more sophisticated “dashboards” add significantly more value than simple at-a-glance ones. Key features of these more sophisticated dashboards are:

1)      Drive action, not just provide information

2)      Navigate around a set of data specific to a particular business problem

3)      Switch between related views (tabs) of the data, whilst retaining the same business context

4)      User interface modelled after a business process (so feels completely natural to its users, who typically require no training)

The difference this makes is so stark that I believe we are better off calling these “BI apps”, rather than dashboards.

BI Apps Becoming More Evenly Distributed

The reason that these BI apps are “already here, but not evenly distributed” is that traditional dashboard tools vary considerably in their ability to support these new features.

None of this will come as a surprise to those who use SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (formerly known as Xcelsius) to create their dashboards. The remarkable flexibility of this application (largely based on using Excel formulas as a means of specifying the logic for data navigation and user interaction) has meant that in the last 10 years or so, these dashboards have increasingly evolved towards BI apps, driven by ever more sophisticated  user requirements. In fact, it’s been a long time since I have seen one of these dashboards, which has not implemented one of more of the BI apps features listed above.

But, this dashboard evolution is only the first of four key reasons why I see BI apps becoming more evenly distributed. The others are:

The Mythology of Self-Service BI Nirvana

Too often, self-service is seen as the ultimate end point for BI. This is a dangerous view which encourages lazy BI practices and threatens to waste the time of busy end-users who really need access to very well defined sets of information which allow them to do their job better. BI apps, by their very nature, minimize this risk.

The Age of Big Data

The huge increase in the amount of data available to organizations and the unprecedented processing power available to analyse it brings to mind Voltaire’s quote “with great power comes great responsibility”. It is not enough to point end-users directly at big data and expect them to make use and sense of it. However, managing it through well-designed BI apps has the potential to deliver enormous value from this new and hugely powerful capability.

The Consumerization of IT

It is often said that “BI should be just like using Google”, however, there are many reasons why this analogy breaks down almost as soon as it makes contact with the real world. A much more relevant lesson from the consumer world is the rise of the app. The tight package of engaging, specific, valuable, simple to use functionality is something which all BI practitioners should borrow from the world of smartphones and tablets.

These four drivers will almost certainly help to ensure that BI apps are much more evenly distributed in the near future.

If you are attending BI 2012, the week of February 26th in Las Vegas you can hear more details on these topics and find out how to accelerate your progress on the road to BI apps at my session at 2:15pm on Wednesday 29th–  BI apps: Taking dashboards to the next level

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