This is a little surprising in one respect because business intelligence is by no means a new thing; BI solutions have been around in one form or another for decades. But the tools and processes for delivering information to workers throughout a business -- the focus of BI solutions -- have matured significantly in recent years.
It's all in the delivery
Although there are many aspects to a complete BI solution, the only one that most people see is the end result - the information that is delivered. The best BI solutions deliver information in a variety of formats using multiple delivery methods, all geared to the needs of individual information workers.
How information is presented and how it is obtained can create huge differences in the usability of the information.
The most common formats for presenting information are:
* Dashboards and scorecards
* Traditional fixed format reports
* Compound reports containing data grids and graphs
* Excel workbooks
* Ad hoc reporting and analysis tools
For obtaining information, there are two common delivery methods: pull and push. With the pull delivery method, reports and scorecards are delivered to a particular location, such as a personal or corporate Web portal, a report library or a common network folder. It is then the responsibility of the information worker to access the information.
With the push delivery method, reports, dashboards and workbooks are delivered directly to the information workers. Newer solutions usually do this through e-mail, but with older applications the delivery method is typically paper copies of reports.
The advantage to push delivery is that the information worker doesn't have to act to obtain the information; delivery is automatic.
The pull and push methods can each be effective, but a new method of delivery changes how information workers acquire and use information. This method embeds information directly in the applications that information workers use on a daily basis, which for most information workers is Microsoft Office.
Solutions are being developed to embed direct access to corporate information within Office documents.
Embedding information into documents is similar to the use of spell checking and grammar checking. For example, if a company sells a product named "flux capacitor," any time those words appear together in an Office document, they would be recognized and highlighted. Users could retrieve information that they are authorized to see about flux capacitors, with results returned within a panel in the Office interface.
Existing pull and push technologies are usually external to the common work processes, requiring a context shift between gathering information and making use of it. With embedded information delivery, information is made available within the context of existing work processes, streamlining the ability to use it.
The pull, push and embedded information delivery methods each have appropriate audiences among information workers. We've labeled the integration of these three delivery methods "Pervasive BI."
With Pervasive BI, information workers can access information with the method that works best for them but can jump to other delivery points as necessary. So when someone opens an Office document containing "flux capacitor," he or she can choose to jump to a library of predefined reports that are related to flux capacitors as easily as he or she can retrieve specifically desired information directly into the document.
This degree of flexibility in information access and the embedding of information directly into ordinary documents are new BI features that have the potential to significantly change how information is accessed and used throughout the organization.
The bottom line is that BI solutions offer a number of ways to deliver information. Consider all the delivery methods when choosing a solution to accommodate the needs of your information workers.
BRYAN MCCLAIN (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the business intelligence practice manager at Innovative Consulting Inc., an IT services company focused on delivering business intelligence solutions. Reach him at (610) 725-2101.