Better BI

Chris Gerrard – Exploring the world of Better Business Intelligence

Few v Forrester

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I’ve been pondering a kerfuffle that erupted when Stephen Few criticized a blog by Forrester’s Boris Evelson here. Stephen took Boris to task for presenting a list of the desirable characteristics of data visualization products. A melee erupted.

I’ve been thinking about this, and why I’m troubled by the nature of the conversation.
First off, I wholeheartedly agree with Stephen’s overall analysis of the contents of Boris’ Forrester blog in terms of the blog’s value in assessing the data visualization abilities of various products.

I applaud Stephen for pointing out the abrogation of professional responsibility by Boris and Forrester in publishing and promoting analyses which are in the main actively damaging in that they propagate misconceptions about their nominal topic area.

It’s distressing that many people have been critical of Stephen for providing the extremely valuable service of pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes. That many of these criticisms have come from Big-BI vendors is no surprise, as they can be expected to attack anyone who exposes their flaws and points out their shortcomings. It’s disheartening to see the same sentiments parroted by those who are actually suffering from these very same problems with the various products, but this simply attests to the success of the Big-BI vendors, and their promoters, in establishing the framing of the dicussion about the BI environment, of which data visualization is (in their view) a small part.

The big fly in the BI soup is that BI has become framed in the media and in the minds of most people solely in terms of very large, complicated, complex, expensive, and difficult to install and get operational data warehouse-based commercial products.

BI has become the fiefdom of large software companies whose motivation is to sell larger and more expensive products.
They are aided in this by organizations like Forrester and Gartner whose revenue is derived from providing analyses of the products in the areas they review. It’s in their interest to collude, if even through harmonic reinforcement, with the large BI vendors in promulgating the idea that Big-BI products -are- the way BI is done. The larger, more complex, and more expensive the products, the more “value” the analysts’ products-reports, quadrants, capability analyses, etc,-appear to be and the more revenue they can derive from them.

On one level, it’s understandable that Boris’ blog enumerated the feature set that’s been created as the desirable characteristics of commercial BI tools; these are the features that the Big-BI vendors have been promoting, are surfaced as Good Things in their products, and are therefore necessarily going to be prominent in the lists of features provided in Vendor representations, and by the majority of non-expert IT people who are passive market followers.

On another, more meaningful level, and this is where I think Stephen rightly criticizes Boris and Forrester, passing off bad information (and Boris’ list of features really does qualify here) as informed, expert analysis and advice really does come up short of professional standards, and does real harm in that it continues to reinforce harmful ideas that limit the effectiveness of delivering high quality information to people who need to make decisions.

I’ve been working in BI for twenty five years. Early in my career I was lucky enough to work for one of the companies that pioneered the field of BI. Our product was a specialized reporting technology that let us essentially sidestep the entrenched Data Processing environments then controlling things and get information into the heads and minds of business decision makers, often in hours instead of the weeks and months it took the DP shops to bring their big machinery to bear on even simple reporting requests.

BI has become the modern DP. The environment is ruled by the commercial interests of big technology companies.

Data visualization is, in this environment, a small backwater of little interest to the Big-BI-invested parties.

The products that provide high quality visualization capabilities are the early mammals in this world. They are more nimble, agile, and provide tremendous value that Big-BI tools do not.

To sum up, the crux of the larger issue here is whether one considers the delivery of high quality information or the installation of complex, expensive big machinery to be the point of BI. If the former, use the good tools and observe the principle “All BI is Local”; your users and clients will appreciate the value you deliver. If the former, spend a lot of time and money while delivering little if any information to the business decision makers; your users and clients will be impatient and frustrated.

Better yet, use the best modern tools where they provide their real value, and use the Big-BI tools where they contribute to improving the delivery of information, not impede it.

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Written by Chris Gerrard

January 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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