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Explaining BI to non-BI folks

I’m preparing for an upcoming business trip that I’d like to share with everyone. I will be at The Minerals, Metals and Materials (TMS2012) conference in beautiful Orlando, FL next week. The conference topics are exciting for me personally as well as professionally. My first job out of college (where I spent 10 years of my career) was with a metals refinery and extrusion plant that is a part of a major copper mining company based in the US. This is not just where I cut my teeth in business and IT but also where I was able to develop an understanding of the complexities and difficulties of running a business. These skills served me well, and in the ensuing years while I’ve been an employee at InfoSol I’ve had multiple opportunities to work in manufacturing and mining across the globe.

Even though this space is very familiar to me, I have been worried about how I can best deliver a short, easily consumed pitch to tell people at the conference what Business Intelligence is and how it can help their businesses. Those of us who have been in BI or IT for years might think the question a little blasé, but many of the people at this conference will be scientists, engineers and technicians who view IT as either a maintenance function or even worse as part of the problem keeping things from getting done. They all understand statistics and the art of analytical research so they know part of the BI world, but what about the rest of it? What can I tell them when they ask what I do for a living? I do a whole lot more than pour over data sets and try to extract meaning, much more than put together pretty reports. How can I explain all of this to people who don’t care about the tools that sometimes define my field?

When you do the typical Wikipedia search on Business Intelligence you see a few general definitions but they are quite frankly contradictory. One of the biggest problems is with the limiting word “Business” which tends to bring to mind the ideas and concerns of accounting, purchasing and other “Business” areas.

This is obviously an incomplete definition and I prefer the description from Forrester research group: “Business Intelligence is a set of methodologies, processes, architectures, and technologies that transform raw data into meaningful and useful information used to enable more effective strategic, tactical, and operational insights and decision-making.”

I like this definition better for a number of reasons. One, it more accurately describes what I do every day, and it also helps us describe a very complex world where we have a lot of heterogeneous data streams which need to be synthesized, cleaned and ultimately presented in a way and time that will help people make good decisions.

I think I’ll have to focus on 3 major misconceptions and biases which will keep people from seeing what we have to offer.

The first misconception that I will surely run into is that people will describe us as, “those people who write reports”. While report development is an important part of what we do it is ultimately a small, albeit visible, part of the proverbial puzzle.

Dashboards and reports are the icing on the cake of our entire processes. The final part, but still the icing! And, it often outshines the complex foundation that is in place to allow this final presentation layer to be useful. Our real focus is on decision support and all of the work that is required to allow for good decisions to be made with data is our domain. Our tools support technical activities which allow for data movement/management, cleansing, aggregation, consolidation, presentation and let’s not forget distribution! The youngest and greenest person at the conference will surely know that having a great plan and great science is only valuable if the final output is something that can be understood, consumed and ultimately implemented by the users and operators.

I remember vividly in an earlier part of my career desperately trying to build a project justification for C level management to show the value of implementing a laboratory information management system. We were presenting the cost justification based on the errors on the margin which would affect business decisions. Back then I was simply focused on the data acquisition and management which the LIMS system would provide. The part I was missing was the next step which went to the real crux of the problem, how do we get operators and geologists to implement decisions based on our chemical analysis? How can we get them to trust the output of our processes and system? Ultimately this is the problem that BI solves. While we put a very expensive solution in place to manage our chemistry data, the project was incomplete. We still had to go back and implement the consolidation of that data with other geological and operational data to get a complete picture which could be integrated with the mine plan and actually executed. This is BI, the whole chain of data regardless of the source application all the way to someone deciding whether a particular scoop or rock is waste or should be processed.

The second misconception is that it’s all about the tool. We often talk in terms of the technical tools in BI but really that is even more short-sighted, even if it simplifies the conversation. Unfortunately this bias tends to affect the BI practitioner as much as the consumer. For instance, one of most popular tools is SAP Dashboard Design more commonly known as Xcelsius. This is an amazing visualization tool but if we peel back the flash (little inside joke there, ask me about it at the conference!) and look at the reason behind changing data tables into charts and dynamic analysis we realize that this is a tool that allows us to change people’s understanding and perspective of their own data and their own business. Indeed it allows people to quickly go through tons of data to see trends, correlating data and ultimately make better decisions. It’s not just about the tool, but also the opportunity the tool provides to inspire action.

Take for example a manufacturing environment using Xcelsius along with some distribution technology that we have (yes, read distribution technology as a ‘shameless plug’ for InfoSol’s InfoBurst® platform) to help plant supervisors manage their daily operations. The key point to me is that the users simply didn’t have access to the data in a consumable way to make decisions. The incredible investment in technology and engineering that this plant represented was being hamstrung by the very complexity that made it great. A good BI solution changed that, and helped the people running the plant wrap their arms around everything that was going on.

The final misconception is that BI is just a fancy word for analytics. While it is true that analytics is an important component of the BI landscape, it is not the pinnacle of the field; we must remember that the various pieces of the BI landscape work together to help people make better decisions. I like the example of the humble control chart. Everyone knows that control charts help us quickly understand how various processes are working against controls and statistical analysis. Unfortunately just having a control chart doesn’t do you very much good unless it is in the hands of the right person, at the right time with the relevant data to help the user understand if this variation is a true issue or just a flier. The drill-down capability and ad hoc analysis of data that the BI tools can provide compliments and extends the raw analytical power that our statistical vision focuses on.

I don’t know if I’ve put together a clear vision of BI, but at least I hope that I’ve put together a plan to address some of the ideas which will help us present the perspective that every project involving data (i.e. all of them) needs BI. Not just as an afterthought or as an aside, but rather as a key component to the successful implementation of every effort. We need to help those engineers worried about the technical hydrometallurgy and the impact of process changes in their plants to also take a second and think: What can I do to help present this data to management and operators to help them follow my vision and plans and then to validate the end results?

About Ethan

Ethan Durda is Director of Business Intelligence Development for INFOSOL providing training, consulting and project management for both Crystal Reports and BusinessObjects. Recent projects have included an XI R3 conversion and heading up a large Web Intelligence report development project. Ethan has 14 years in Information Services experience in a variety of platforms and databases. He has extensive teaching experience and has taught all levels of users and developers both BusinessObjects and Crystal Reports toolsets. Ethan is also active in various Business Intelligence Groups including America’s SAP User Group (ASUG), and previous to that, the Global BusinessObjects Network (GBN) organization. He is also a member of the Data Services Special Interest Group Steering Committee.

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