11 BI Trends to Watch in 2011

Updated: December 31, 2010

360-degree, global views of business activity will make BI more predictive. Make no mistake, businesses already expect BI to deliver predictions, but they tend to be of the assume-the-future-is-like-the-past-but-a-little-better variety. But as companies do a better job creating common, global data sets, BI will be able to make more accurate and informed predictions, because the body of evidence is getting bigger and more reliable. Understanding the complete sales cycle, from the number of times the sales rep contacts to the customer to how many times that customer returns a product or opens a support ticket over a 10-year period will open the door to an entirely new range of predictive correlations.

BI will become more mobile. BI will be built for iPhone, iPad, Android and Blackberry. These instant-on, connect-anywhere mobile devices are pocket supercomputers and they are everywhere in the business world, making them perfect BI delivery platforms. Mobile BI will mean instant insights just as good as anything you could get sitting at your desk. The integration between mobile voice and BI will become tighter as well. Call center agents have been getting informative screen pops for years, putting a customer's entire business history on the screen before the first "hello." Mobile devices will be able to present the same relevant customer data as soon as the ringtone starts.

BI will enable the "Internet of Things." Each and every one of those pocket supercomputers is not only capable of storing, tagging, categorizing, and publishing data, but also of correlating data with real things you can touch, smell, buy and sell. In recent years companies like RedLaser took the barcode and other scannable symbols out of the realm of specialized devices and turned them into public data addresses. Now it's up to BI leaders to help business users take that amazing power to build the "Internet of Things"—the ability to place any object in context, analyze it with all the data in world that describes it, and make an intelligent decision. Every intersection between a person and a thing is now an opportunity for data exchange, and that opens up tremendous possibilities.

BI will become collaborative. In the past, collaborative BI meant 30 people all looking at the same report. What we will see in the future is a team-oriented mentality that comes together not just to read the answers aloud like a chorus, but to collaborate to ask the right questions. This trend will accelerate as today's grade school kids, already learning to collaborate in real-time on class reports, enter the workforce.

BI will become more democratic. Specifically, the IT group will no longer dictate the terms of when and how business intelligence is delivered and focus on service delivery that meets the needs of business users. Going mobile is part of this process, of course. But it means more than simply delivering the same old limited tools to a handset. On a broader level it means that business users will demand, and receive, the tools they need to build their own global inventory analyses, financial roll-ups, or sales pipelines, sliced and diced as they please. Waiting for specialists to build reports is a dying concept.

BI will encourage business users and IT to become true partners. Democracy doesn't mean that IT fades out of the picture. Instead, the CIO and the IT group will be increasingly asked to apply their expertise to helping business users understand what all that data means. Technology plays such a vital role in how products and services are sourced, marketed, and delivered that it is foolish to keep them out of the process of understanding business results. For instance, IT's insights can turn a simple marketing A/B test into an informative analysis of website performance. Self-service is a wonderful thing, and IT should be enabling it whenever possible—but the technologists must also play a role in helping business understand results.

BI will increasingly harmonize structured and unstructured data. Extracting insights from unstructured data is not a particularly new idea, but results have either been their own, separate silo, or have played only a supporting role to conventional structured analysis. As seen from pioneers like Recorded Future, the next wave in BI will combine structured and unstructured sources on a much more equal footing, creating more powerful and reliable indicators—and cutting down on silos and stand-alone reports. Ecommerce and marketing will be the biggest winners here as they will be able to correlate official product descriptions, customer reactions and reviews, and hard sales and profitability figures to truly understand how marketing and merchandising affect the entire value chain.

BI will embrace benchmarking. Knowing that you sold 50 units in an hour is only valuable if you understand it against your potential—and your competitors. Benchmarking provides the context to tell you whether your results are good, bad, or ugly. BI tools are already fast and powerful, so crunching massive, industry-wide datasets to produce constantly-updated benchmarks is completely feasible. These industry-wide insights were previously the domain of a few rarified specialists, but it is becoming far easier to build and obtain benchmarking data from the public domain.

BI will rely on federated data, not massive data warehouse projects. Hats off to the companies that wrangled together a huge data warehouse, but in the long run, you simply cannot store every piece of information relevant to your business in one place. Subsidiaries, partners, social media spaces and formats we have yet to imagine all have valuable data, and the number of sources is growing. BI solutions are evolving to federate that data as-needed, instead of forcing a lot of wheel-spinning to load it all into a single database. Data itself is going to be seen as an on-demand service accessible by BI tools, not as a closed-box procedure.

BI will do a better job answering the question, "Who cares?" This is more of a personal wish than a true prediction, but one that I expect the BI industry to arrive at on its own. BI has historically done a good job answering questions beginning with "what" ("What is our strongest market?") and has gotten better at answering questions beginning with "why" ("Why aren't we selling more in Toledo?"). But BI has been weak at guiding business users to understanding context, correlation, and relevance in their own business environment ("So we sell more on the second Tuesday of each month than any other day. Who cares?") Personal filters and educated judgment will always play a role in business analytics, but BI must and can evolve to provide more industry- and business-specific context that will help decision-makers understand the difference between valuable insights and novelty correlations.

BI remains the top business priority, but everything you knew is changing. Analysts have been telling us for years that BI is the top business priority for the coming year, and 2011 is no different. But everything about BI is different. BI is in the cloud. BI is federating data sources large and small, within and without the corporate firewall. The scale of BI has shifted tremendously, in that even a modest mid-sized company now has access to petabytes of data—quantities previously only known in major governments and a few select mega-corps. BI is refining natural-language search and analysis. BI bears very little resemblance to the "executive information systems" of old. In 2011, BI will be relied on by the most senior and the most junior employees to understand what, why, how, and what should I do about it?

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