Expert Interview: Wayne W. Eckerson of Eckerson Group on the Evolution of Business Intelligence
Wayne W. Eckerson (@weckerson), founder and principal consultant for Eckerson Group, is an internationally recognized thought leader in the business intelligence. He is a sought-after consultant, noted speaker and bestselling author.
Here, Wayne offers his insight on how business analytics has evolved and shares his thoughts on what BI professionals will need to do survive the future of self-service technology. Read on…
How has the field of business intelligence and analysis evolved since you started your career?
When I got into the field in the early 1990s, we called it data warehousing. Then the name changed to business intelligence in the late 1990s. By the 2000s, there was a heavy emphasis on performance management with the advent of dashboards and scorecards. Then in 2010s, the name morphed again into analytics or Big Data or simply Big Data analytics.
In 2020, we’ll likely see another semantic shift, perhaps something around artificial intelligence and cognitive science, which is really heating up right now. Despite the name changes, the goal has always been the same: use technology to help people and organizations turn data into insights into action.
What sets your approach to BI apart from your competitors? What makes Eckerson Group unique?
I formed Eckerson Group two years ago to bring research, education and strategic consulting services to business intelligence leaders – those folks at the top of the data-insights-action chain. They have a hard job and success can be difficult to attain. Besides providing technology advice, we help BI leaders learn the soft skills required to succeed – sales, marketing, training, and change management. It turns out that knowing how to manage and communicate with people is a bigger success factor than technical knowledge.
How should business intelligence leaders approach their roles within their organizations today? What are some of the common challenges facing individuals in this position?
The biggest challenge today is navigating the tidal shift that has moved power, influence and budget from corporate IT to the business units. It used to be that the corporate BI team was the only game in town when it came to turn data into insights and action. They did it all.
Today, business units no longer wait for corporate IT or BI to build or change something; they do it themselves. Thus, the role of the BI leader is changing from a technology dictator to a technology facilitator. The era of self-service is upon us and BI leaders need to adapt.
What are the most common mistakes or errors you see your clients making when it comes to their BI strategy? What should they be doing differently?
I rarely see teams take an inventory of who is doing business intelligence of same shape or form anywhere in the company. If you don’t know who the players are, it’s difficult to formulate a strategy. I think it’s imperative that BI leaders understand who their competition is – the people building renegade reporting systems and data silos – and strive to work with them in a cooperative manner. BI leaders need to oversee a virtual, grassroots team comprised of corporate BI professionals as well as data analysts and scientists and their managers in the business units.
I also rarely see BI leaders maintain an accurate technology architecture. So much of the architecture is developed ad hoc that is difficult to document. But without documentation – and a business-friendly version of the data contents – it’s hard to work efficiently or effectively to use technology when driving business goals.
What are the risks to organizations that don’t embrace new BI strategies?
Most are struggling to modernize outdated data warehousing architectures, implement self-service BI tools in a governed way, and organize resources in an optimal manner. Without a modernization strategy, BI teams risk becoming irrelevant and having their budgets reduced. BI teams have to always prove their value – and that means getting the business to recognize the value of partnering with the BI team. If the business doesn’t want to partner with the BI team, then it’s only a matter of time until the BI team is outsourced, offshored, or axed.
How have BI tools evolved in recent years? What technology should organizations be using today to improve their business intelligence and analysis?
There have been many generations of BI tools. Most recently, we’ve seen a wave of self-service visualization tools that have made analyzing data and creating custom reports much easier than using Excel.
But now, we’re seeing self-service tools come under fire for not having enough governance to keep self-service from creating data chaos. So a new generation of modern analytic platforms is gradually taking root. These platforms support any mode of BI and every type of user with a single, integrated architecture that has open APIs so other applications can leverage the tool or build unique applications on top of it.
We’re also seeing the advent of BI search tools that make querying data as easy as typing plain English words into a search box. This degree of simplicity has brought a degree of self-service to casual users that has not been possible until recently.
What do organizations need to know about implementing new BI technology? How should they evaluate which tools are right for their goals?
It all starts with creating an inventory of business users and understanding their information requirements. With an inventory in hand, then companies can create standards for the major categories of users or information requirements. The best tools allow administrators to expose functionality on demand as users change roles or seek more functionality.
Organizations need to identify standards for each category of user or use case. Organizations still need to debate whether they get all their BI tools from a single vendor (or a single tool if it supports all users) or from multiple BI vendors who have best-of-breed products. Although it’s wise to standardize on a single tool for each type of user or use case, this often isn’t possible since business units often go their own way. BI leaders need to have a strategy to create consensus around standards and working with business heads whose groups don’t adopt the standards.
How can organizations ensure these new tools will be used effectively?
Besides standard training and support mechanisms, a lot of companies are creating communities of interest (CoI) to help business users – especially power users – learn from each other. They are also holding office hours, hack-a-thons and visualization contests as well as providing proactive support. This is true among power users. Casual users need hands-on training and support along with tools that are intuitive to use.
What business intelligence trends or headlines are you following closely today? Why?
Natural language generation (NLG) tools, which will soon be built into most BI tools, automate data analysis and type or read the results to business users.
NLG can save busy managers a lot of time studying reports or sifting through large volumes of data looking for what’s significant. NLG tools can find the proverbial needle in a haystack. The technology is still in its infancy and its application is somewhat proscribed, but it has huge potential to revolutionize how organizations analyze data.
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