Archive for category Information Technology
Can’t anybody here play this game? – Casey Stengel
IBM has a new paper out on that age-old question – why do BI projects fail, and what can be done about it? The paper is entitled “Bridge The Gap Between BI Best Practices and Successful Real World Solutions“. The first few pages are the usual marketing fluff, and they generally contradict the “meat” of the paper, which begins a little further in. That is, once again, we see a particular technical/product solution proposed to solve what is not a technical problem. This is accomplished by simply asserting that this particular technical solution maps neatly over the business problems Gartner has uncovered. If you are brave enough to hack your way through the paper to where the Gartner material actually begins, there are some interesting discoveries to be made. By “interesting” I mean “depressing”. Taken as a whole the paper can be thought of as a fine example of what the Gartner research itself reveals.
The paper begins with a set of now-common observations: that BI programs need a business sponsor, that IT ends up “selling” BI to the business (and doing it badly), that BI tends to get “stuck in reporting”, and that “Technology is rarely the culprit if the BI project is considered a failure”. All well and good. And then at page 2 we read, in bold, all-caps:
IBM COGNOS EXPRESS: THE KEY TO A WINNING BI STRATEGY
I see. IBM’s technology will be the “key”. That’s a relief. Gap closed! Close the document and move along.
But if I keep reading, I discover that the folks at Gartner have done some research on the practice of BI programs, most of which are not particularly related to technology (on the contrary.) The results aren’t good. That doesn’t mean they are surprising, of course.
The Gartner section of the paper is called “The BI(G) Discrepancy: Theory and Practice of Business Intelligence”. They break out 9 aspects of BI implementation, and discuss what should be done in each aspect, versus what their research indicates is actually taking place in the real world. The results are a confirmation of what most of us “in the trenches” feel intuitively: there seems to be little correspondence between what should be done, and what actually is done. And technology isn’t going to change that.
The whole thing is worth a read, but the most eye-popping section turns out to be the discussion of - BI strategy! That thing that the latest IBM product will provide a “key” for! Turns out only 2% of organizations informally surveyed in mature markets had anything called a BI strategy. That’s not a typo. 2%. And this is among Gartner clients. Let that sink in for a second, and then consider this quote from the paper:
“Nearly shocking results are obtained when reviewing the so-called BI strategy documents. Almost never would those qualify as strategy in Gartner’s opinion. Quite often a strategy is merely a statement like “We have a Microsoft BI strategy” or “Our BI strategy is SAP” indicating what products the organization is using or planning to implement. Other times the “strategy” is merely an architecture diagram… This is as if the Ferrari Formula 1 team described its racing strategy as “using Bridgestone tires, Shell fuel, a V8 engine and red paint.”
I like the use of “Nearly” to suggest seen-it-all unflappability on the part of the author.
The analyst goes on to describe the initial 2% number as “rather optimistic” (raw-ther, old sport!), blows some dust off the dictionary definition of “strategy”, and then (perhaps beginning to get a little exasperated, and reaching for the bottle) muses that:
“The question could be expanded to: Do executives even understand what constitutes a strategy?”
Yes! It does appears that the question could be expanded to that!
Everyone, and I mean everyone, I have ever encountered in this industry who works above the level of writing reports struggles with the problems outlined in the Gartner material every day. And yet here we are, decades now into the world of BI, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better. BI still seems to be mired in confusion as to what it is – what is its identity within the organization. The default position seems to be: it’s a technology. IBM et. al. seems ok with this, and I can’t blame them. As long as the discussion can be returned to “BI is a product (and our product is the best!)” they seem to be happy, as they have a tangible thing to sell. My own feeling (obviously) is whenever the real answer to this question is found, it won’t be “Cognos” or “Microsoft Analysis Services” or any other piece of software, and I say this as someone who spends his days with these products in front of him.
If executives don’t have a grasp of the rudiments of BI strategy (or perhaps strategy in general), it seems that the best anyone can do is try to keep pushing technology. At least that seems to be what IBM’s “strategy” is with this document – provide a high-level summary, name the product and map it to what is “supposed” to happen in an organization, and hope for the best – and that no-one keeps reading. Or what the Gartner analyst, in the section on what goes on in the real world when it comes to the business case for BI, characterizes as a “leap of faith”. I’m not kidding, they actually use those words to describe what Gartner clients are doing to justify their BI investments.
Check the paper out, it’s worth a read.
SQL Server Analysis Services is a popular OLAP product included with Microsoft SQL Server. Especially since SQL Server 2005 this product has been quite powerful and fairly easy to develop with. SQL Server provides the Business Intelligence Development Studio (BIDS), a Visual Studio –like product to aid the development of Analysis Services cubes.
For browsing and reporting on a cube, however, choices have been more limited. Excel provides a good choice, especially since Excel 2007, which contains enhancements that make creating cross-tab reports easier than previous versions.
If your users are committed to Cognos PowerPlay, you can use this tool as well. Setting up a MS Analysis Services cube for browsing with PowerPlay is a little more involved than a regular Cognos cube, but is still quite easy to do.
The executeable is ppconnct.exe.
This tool is used to create a binary “pointer file” with a .MDC extension. This file, once created, will behave like a PowerPlay OLAP Cube, but the underlying cube will actually be (in this case) a Microsoft Analysis Services cube.
Start PowerPlay Connect, select File… New to create a new MDC file. For the database type, select MS SSOS (ODBO):
You have a couple of choices next. If you know the server name for your instance SQL Server Analysis Services you can enter it in the next line, under Server:[Port]. In this case I can enter “localhost”, as I am serving the cube from my local machine.
Alternatively, I can select the … button beside Database, and I will be presented with the Chose a Remote Cube dialog box. In this case I then select Microsoft SQL Server OLAP Server at the bottom, and then select a connection I have already created previously using the tool. In this case the connection is called local. I’m then presented with a list of databases available on the connection “local”.
I can then open SSAS_Adventure_Works and the cube that exists in this particular database. A database might have many cubes available in it.
Alternatively I could create a new connection, by clicking on Connections… and then clicking Add. I enter the name I want to give the connection, and then the name of the server, and select Microsoft SQL Server OLAP Server and MSOLAP as the provider:
Since I selected the cube SSAS_Adventure_Works, we see this in the details of the connection string:
I can now click File… Save and save this as an .MDC file:
The file appears as a normal MDC cube, but is really just a pointer file to the SSAS database server:
Using PowerPlay, I can now open the MDC file as if it were an ordinary cube. I can navigate it generally in the same way I would navigate a Cognos cube, althought some things such as Measure Groups that are part of the Microsoft approach to OLAP do not behave exactly the same way. Meaures appear as a single list, much as they do in Cognos cubes.
PowerPlay Connect MDC files can be put on the network, or shared as any other file, and will work as long as the user has access to the underlying Microsoft database.
I started reading the new Nicholas Carr book The Shallows the other day. The premise of the book is that internet usage affects our brains, rewiring us for the new technology. Carr reports that some who use the internet tell of a difficulty reading long articles or books. I must say that I certainly skim newspapers more than I once did, so feel as though my reading ability has been affected as well. That said, I make a deliberate effort to continue to read books, magazines and newspapers precisely because they open my mind up in new directions. On-screen and off-screen reading are very different activities, and I continue both as an effort to cross-train my brain.
Take the example of typing versus piano playing. I am a professional computer programmer and have been a proficient typer for decades. I am also an amateur piano player and play a little for fun. What I can tell you is that typing and piano playing feel completely different and use a different nuance altogether. The short staccato pecks on a keyboard are nothing like the fluid, graceful movements of piano playing, although both actions are done primarily with the hands.
Lately I have undertaken a daily exercise regime for my health. What I can tell you is that I need to do many different types of exercise to keep myself fit. It is not enough for me to do some daily yoga, but rather mix up my regime to include a wide variety of activities including swimming, palates, biking, skating, roller-blading. Not only does this work many different muscle groups in different ways, it makes exercise interesting. I find that the more I exercise the more I want to try different things or try things again I did long ago.
Like the body, the brain needs a similar variety of activities for optimum performance. Keep your brain sharp by reading a variety of mediums.
A number of years ago, when our first child was born, we placed an announcement in the newspaper like good dutiful new parents. What we got in return was a bunch of calls from financial planners pitching education savings plans. Needless to say we did not announce the births of any of our other children in this way. What might look like smart, targeted marketing to some can come across as cheap, offensive, underhanded and even a bit sleazy. And I ask myself this week “Is this the future of Facebook marketing?”
When Facebook ads first came out, I was astonished at how untargeted they were. Work-from-home, date sites and cheap loans were the order of the day. Eventually you could vote for or against these ads, but even this appeared to have little impact on what actually appeared. I quickly tuned out and scarcely notice Facebook ads anymore at all.
What is far more effective, in my opinion, is the targeted search results that come back on Google. I am actually looking for something, and Google helps the marketers find me. It is a win-win. It is not intrusive or invasive, at least not the way I see it.
Facebook users signed up to share with online friends. In contrast, Facebook wants to open the data up to reap a fortune in mining personal data for marketing purposes. The crux of the matter is that Facebook and its users have diametrically opposed views of what the intended use and audience of all this data is meant to be. This is a circle not easily squared. How Facebook navigates these treacherous waters will indeed decide its future.