Businesses of all sizes are turning to self-service business intelligence (BI) tools to gain faster and better access to information and insights. This is partly a response to stretched IT staffs that cannot keep up with the constant demand for new reports and analysis. For major corporations, data exploration and visualization tools can supplement their core BI initiatives, providing a friendlier front end that builds on existing investments. For smaller organizations, these tools may be the only ones they need.
Why is Agile BI important? There are two main reasons, both of which happen to be clichés. The first reason is that information is power. The second reason is that timing is everything.
Business users frequently find themselves swimming in molasses as they try to get the information they need to make decisions in a timely manner. The bottleneck more often than not is their own IT department, which, by no fault of its own, struggles to keep up with the continuous flow of queries, resulting in significant delays in report delivery. Increasingly, IT resources are also being asked to connect to new data sources and their current tools may not be the right ones for the job.
There are other reasons to move toward Agile BI. Consider: While traditional, full-scale BI is generally strong with respect to trends identification and data consolidation, it tends to fall short when it comes to enabling a proactive approach to decision making. And whereas traditional BI offers pre-defined analytics and reporting, Agile BI provides ad-hoc data discovery tools that can be used to answer new business questions as they arise. Also, IT support is required for traditional BI but far less so for Agile BI, which boasts self-service delivery models that once deployed generally require little IT involvement. Because information is power and timing is everything, it’s easy to see why Agile BI is gaining ground.
Simply put, business users want to know what they can do right now to drive increased efficiency and effectiveness, not what they could have done two or three weeks ago, when they first submitted their request to IT to integrate a new data source into the BI system. The acceleration of decision-making cycles speaks to the importance of putting data and self-service BI tools in the hands of business users.
Business decisions are informed not only by the accuracy and timeliness of the information, but also by the ability to create customized views into the information, based on the specific requirements of the business user. These requirements may be simple. One business user may need items sorted in alphabetical order, for example, while another business user may need the same items to be organized in chronological order.
Everyone has a different question they’re trying to answer, a different information need they’re trying to address. Being able to create custom views that accommodate the varying needs of users may not seem like a big deal. But for organizations hamstrung by the constraints of static, one-size-fits-all reports, such a capability is nothing short of revolutionary.
When it comes to technology selection, there are more Agile BI options than ever. The problem is that self-service visualization and data discovery tools are starting to look an awful lot alike. Most have fundamentally the same features and functionality and provide fundamentally the same set of benefits. With such commoditization, it is becoming increasingly clear that what matters most is the structural integrity and flexibility of the data foundation and how quickly business users can turn critical business data into actionable reports that drive sound business decisions.
Even vendors at the top end of the market are getting into the Agile BI game. But while most of the traditional solutions, which have now been consolidated under the ownership of large enterprise players like IBM, SAP, Microsoft and Oracle, are rolling out self-service interfaces, only SAP and Oracle are included in this vendor landscape owing to their recent acquisitions of Sybase and Endeca, respectively. A number of other titans of BI, including MicroStrategy and Information Builders, have largely reinvented themselves to complete in the Agile BI space. Others, such as SAS, which last March launched its new SAS Visual Analytics solution, are investing heavily in Agile BI and may ultimately emerge as leaders in this space.
According to the Q4 2012 benchmark report Agile Business Intelligence, which includes descriptions and analyst commentary on 36 related solution providers, selecting the right technologies emerged as the top challenge organizations face today in implementing an Agile BI initiative. And in many ways, comparing Agile BI solutions is much like comparing apples and oranges. Some solutions are open source, others are proprietary. Some revolve around data discovery and visualization, others focus on agile information management and data integration. Some solutions target business users, others serve the needs of IT and third-party developers.
In the end, the right technology choice depends on the specific resources, capabilities and focus areas of the organization and what it seeks to accomplish. In other words, the answer lies within.