A Conversation with...Hummingbird-The New Age for Business Intelligence: How BI is Creating Value by Escaping its Data-only Past

It’s not your grandfather’s Business Intelligence. BI has always been the domain of a specialist of some kind or another, and that has not been a good thing. As typically deployed, BI has been too often disconnected from the people who really should be using it—namely, business decision makers. Instead, due to the complexity and learning slope, most organizations hired a “business analyst” to run queries and create BI reports for various departments. This analyst was very talented, but there was no way one could avoid eventually overloading and generally mistreating the poor fellow.

Old-school BI also meant “strictly database.” The data that you extracted, transferred and loaded with ETL tools came from relational databases of the Oracle and IBM variety. No attempt to integrate text and other unstructured data stores was made. No plan to, either.

New-age business intelligence tools, on the other hand, are differently motivated. For one thing, they’re far more accessible. Instead of restricting access to BI resources to the nice analyst, new BI technology prefers a larger and more diverse neighborhood. More and more, the BI user is a casual visitor, usually a business decision maker who has little time to spend learning an intense BI application. He just wants to get a report, fast, and he wants to do it himself.

And for another thing, new-age business intelligence technology has to bring unstructured data sources—document files—to the ante. To get a seat at the table in today’s BI competitive landscape, you’ve got to be thinking about the value you bring to the customer.

Hummingbird has grasped the trend toward new-age BI. I recently spoke with three of the people at Hummingbird who are guiding the business intelligence effort.

“Customers expect total solutions AND technology that will work inside their infrastructure in a highly integrated way,” says John Bellegarde, Vice President Product Management for Hummingbird. “That drives us, as vendors, to innovate. We have to work to integrate our own solutions because that’s what the customers are looking for.”

Mathias Evin, Data Integration Product Manager for Hummingbird, thinks customers are starting to get the picture. “The BI tools haven’t changed over the years...what has changed is the perception of the people using them. People now consider BI a component of a number of solutions. BI is available within the business processes, and users can access reports the same way they access other features of their content management solutions.”

“Easy” and “accessible” were never words associated with old-school Business Intelligence. BI tools—the old-school variety—could fairly be described as expensive luxury items for the special and privileged few, and were notorious for their complexity. “The user had to log off and log into another application, try to find out where the report they’re looking for was stored, refresh it several times because they used the wrong parameters the first time ... then finally after an hour or two, give up because they couldn’t find what they wanted,” says Evin. In today’s value-based economic environment, that stuff won’t float.

“Business executives don’t have the time to spend with a BI tool,” says Alexandre Pierre, Business Intelligence Product Manager for Hummingbird. “So instead of bringing people to the BI tool, our goal is to bring BI reports to the people, through a Web interface, so they can get accurate and up-to-date information with which to make decisions for their companies. In the future, we’ll provide BI reports through a Web service, that can be used by any other application—workflow, document management, etc.,” Alex predicts.

The Path to Here

If the strict definition of business intelligence is starting to feel ambiguous to you, get in line. Most of us have to get over the old connotation of BI as a strictly database-analysis technology if we want to get in step with the times.

“The definition may vary from one customer to another, and from one analyst to another,” agrees Pierre. “It’s an ever-evolving definition, which is fair and good, because the technologies are always evolving as well.”One of the lingering concepts of BI has to do with the pursuit of what is known as “the single version of the truth.” When business decision-makers rely on internal information to make critical decisions, it stands to reason that “multiple versions of the truth” or worse, “conflicting versions of the truth” cannot be tolerated.

“The concept of a ‘single version of the truth’ comes from the data integration field,” explains Pierre. “It’s a metaphor for the ability to collect and unify all the collections of structured data into a single report, including all the information available from various database sources in your company.”

But the part that makes the old definition obsolete is the emergence of unstructured data—text, document, memos, e-mails—as a key factor in the forensics of business information. “You have this big pile of unstructured information which either supports the truth, references the truth, refutes the truth, or is legally at odds with the truth,” describes Bellegarde. “If it can be used to back up an argument, refute an argument or understand that you have a liability...these are all key business drivers today,” he says.It’s indisputable that we have a long way to go. Many pieces of the puzzle—for example, bulletproof enterprise search of unstructured data stores, and reliable management control over the massive amount of communication that changes hands each minute—are still being worked on by the vendor community and their peers in the systems integration arena. But the encouraging part is the progress, and the willingness of the business community to consider BI a viable component in their daily knowledge management activities.

“In good times, people use BI technology to support their growth strategy. In downturns, they use BI to look for efficiencies and try to manage their costs better. Either way, BI plays right into both of those conditions, and that’s why people are willing to invest in it,” says Pierre confidently.Solutions providers such as Hummingbird can see convergence of structured and unstructured data occurring—and are creating tools that exploit the common denominators that various information stores share, such as their metadata (creator, data created, date accessed, by whom and why, etc.). By focusing on the commonalities that exist among data types—instead of the technical differences—it’s possible this generation of BI innovators—such as Pierre, Evin and Bellegarde—are creating a new category of business intelligence. Call it “Business Understanding,” and you begin to see the possibilities.

Andy Moore is a 25-year publishing professional, editor and writer who concentrates on business process improvement through document and content management. He is now publisher of KMWorld Magazine and its related online publications.As editorial director for the Specialty Publishing Group, Moore is the editorial chair for the “KMWorld Best Practices White Paper”series. Moore is based in Camden,Maine,and can be reached at andy_moore@verizon.net

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