Archive for category Tech Trends
While there has been much buzz and excitement around the concept of Big Data in recent years, I myself have always had certain reservations about it. Not one of my clients works in Big Data or has even expressed interest in it. My clients read structured data from well-established ERP vendor systems, occassionally stepping out of that zone when necessary. While I hear a lot about Hadoop, I don’t know anyone using it. Surely I am not the only one out there.
But Big Data takes a certain leap in logic, in scope, in imagination. I recently learned of a two day course offered by MIT that seeks to explain Big Data to corporate executives and business intelligence professionals alike. The very first thing it says on its website is that business people need to learn to look beyond their finance systems. Finance systems tell you what happened. Big Data can tell you what is happening out there now.
So there is certainly big potential in Big Data. It has the possibility of remaking the BI world as we know it. The MIT course, at $2,900 (tuition only), is not cheap but might help you get there a few steps ahead than everyone else.
When I started out in the IT business, you had to be on site at a client pretty much all of the time. In fact, you often had to be holed up in the server room, which was often like a closet. Unless work could be taken away in its entirety and returned to the client completed, there was no room for working remotely.
How things have changed! Today, through token-based VPNs and remote server connections, virtually anything can be done online remotely. Because of remote technology, I have literally served clients from coast to coast from my home-based office, and I regularly receive inquiries about my services from around the world.
And yet… there are clients who persist in on-site thinking. I regularly see a posting for a contract in Kamloops BC that requires a 6 month on-site engagement. Evidently from the number of times I have seen this posting, they are having trouble filling it. Each time I see it I ask myself “why not remote?”
Now, there may be valid reasons for this such as security or team communication but even these concerns can be addressed with careful management, technological creativity and some limited business travel. I think what it really comes down to is trust. Establishing trust between a client and a consultant is critical, particularly in the early stages of an engagement and almost certainly requires at least some face time. But after that critical phase is passed, is there really any reason you need another body in your office from 9 to 5?
The Government of Canada has spent the last year on a strategic review of programs, with a stated goal of saving 5 to 10% on current program expenditures. One initiative that has come out of this exercise is Shared Services Canada, a centralization of many IT assets including email services, servers and other IT services. I have watched with interest to see how business intelligence is going to fit. BI is uniquely positioned to shed light on a program’s, department’s, or even entire government’s efficiency and effectiveness. But at the same time, BI is best done as an iterative approach, and therefore doesn’t fit so well into a top-down centralized role as Shared Services Canada appears to be. It is the big picture versus the little picture. While ideally it would be great to have a whole picture view of an enterprise’s operations, in practice these views are usually built from the ground up piece by piece.
So will the Government of Canada pursue the ideal or the practical? It is hard to say. But we will know more when the budget is released next month. I am hoping that Business Intelligence will continue to play a important role as we move forward, and that the Government of Canada can find the efficiency it is looking for without sacrificing key tenents of effective business intelligence strategy.
Wayne Eckerson is a noted BI consultant who spoke recently to the Ottawa TDWI chapter. I’d call Wayne a guru, but someone once told me that guru was a polite word for charlatan. Wayne is the very opposite – he is a very down-to-earth speaker who delivered a direct, unpretentious and thoughtful presentation on the subject of BI organizational architecture.
One of Wayne’s interesting observations was that he sees the need for what he calls “purple people” for any successful BI organization. If we think of people on the business side as “blue” and the people on the IT side as “red”, then “purple people” are people that have a mix of skills that enable them to be effective at bridging the gap between the two worlds. I spoke to Wayne afterwards and he elaborated on the idea:
“Purple people are a blend of business and IT – not blue in business or red in IT but a combination of both. These are both senior and junior level folks. At the senior level, some start in the business and end up in IT and then usually come back to the business where they run a business technology group that acts as an interface between the business and IT. (In the BI world I call these teams BOBI – business-oriented BI teams.) Some in IT become very conversant with the business and do a good job meeting business needs. These are directors of BI who interface with business executives more than their technical teams just about, to present budgets, roadmaps, funding requests, etc.
At the junior level, things are trickier, and not as effective. Most companies have business requirements analysts who interview business people, gather requirements, and translate those into specs for developers. I usually find there is a lot lost in translation with these junior level purple people.”
Another one of his key observations in the presentation was that from a BI architecture/organizational perspective, we can think of reporting as being a top-down process, with (we hope!) needs analysis, clearly defined specs, a process for building and moving data marts and reports into production, various controlling structures and so on.
Analysis, however, doesn’t really lend itself to this kind of approach – analysts may not know the questions that they want answered until they begin to delve into the data in a very ad-hoc kind of way. They want to quickly add data sources, join things together, and perform analysis that will lead to more questions, potentially the requirement for more data sources, and so on.
This leads to the business attempting to work around IT to get what they want, including bringing in tools that IT isn’t prepared to support. Analysis ends up being a volatile, bottom-up process, driven by the business, and the organization may struggle to keep it under control. IT fears chaos, but – to some degree – real analysis has a chaotic, or at least unpredictable, character. BI practice has to recognize the contrast in the very natures of reporting and analysis to be effective.
Wayne is a regular blogger and author of books and reports, such as Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business. If you get the opportunity to hear Wayne speak take advantage of it – he delivers a lot of thought-provoking content that has application in the real world.
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
My six week experimentation with Android is over. I am back on the Blackberry network. My aging Blackberry finally gave up the ghost in December. While I was seduced by the siren call of the iPhone, my carrier provided such a steep discount on the Samsung Galaxy S2 that it made the iPhone ridiculously expensive in comparison (my choice was free or $200+). So I made the switch to Android.
I should tell you that I was warned. A friend of mine who had both a Blackberry and an Android phone described the Blackberry as a communication device and the Android as a toy. I soon understood what he meant. For while the Android had a great screen, wonderful web surfing ability and more apps than you could possibly imagine, I did not like typing on it. At all. Maybe it was because I was a Blackberry user for 3 years. Maybe it’s because I like to use proper punctuation. Whatever the case, I couldn’t stand it.
I had tried typing on the iPhone of a friend. It was surprisingly easy. But in my test, I hadn’t tried to punctuate, type numbers or special symbols, write a full email, or fix a typo. So it seemed easier than it really was. The split of special characters into 3 screens was especially annoying, as was trying to move the cursor around with your finger. A few weeks into my life as an Android user, I quickly found myself back on my PC for all of my day-to-day email functions.
So like most people who don’t like something, I used it less and less. And then one day I missed a very important call. That was the last straw and I decided I had to switch back. Switching was easy thanks to Kijiji, where I quickly found a Blackberry user who wanted to switch to Android. We did a fair swap of my used Samsung Galaxy S2 for his used Blackberry Bold 9900. I couldn’t be happier about it!
Why I love my Blackberry:
- The keyboard. The Android (and iPhone) keyboard were not adequate for my needs. The shift, alt, and symbol keys on the Blackberry are like gold to me.
- The cursor control – what used to be that little white ball on my old Blackberry. I found that I really had no adequate cursor control on the Android phone. It was usually easier to erase everything I had written than to try to pinpoint my error with my finger on the screen.
- The red light that tells you there is a new message. I want to know at a glance.
- Push email. I like getting my email when it is sent, not when my phone gets around to checking it.
- The scheduled shutdown – I can’t believe other phones don’t have this as a standard feature! I never want to hear from my phone after I’m in bed. I have young kids who keep me up at night – I don’t need my phone to join the parade! I attempted to have the same effect on Android with Flight mode, but then you have to remember to set it every day.
Blackberry apps certainly do not have the same diversity as the Android or iPhone apps. But then most of the Android apps I saw were either games or micro-tasks, neither of which were generally relevant to my life. So I can’t say that I’ll miss them.
Now if RIM could just get that pinch zoom to work on Blackberry… That would be something!
A Newly Loyal Blackberry User
P.S. I got pinch zoom working too!
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.