Sharing Business Analytics for Mutual Benefit

Feature Article | March 19, 2008 by SAP News

You have said that the world of business intelligence is heading toward less structure and more chaos. What’s going on to make you say this?

Babineau: There’s more information coming from an increasing variety of different sources, and the nature of the new data sources is more chaotic. It’s not just the financial and operational data that reside in tables and rows in corporate databases. It’s non-structured data types, such as customer chat sessions, e-mail, blogs and other social media, memos, surveys, résumés, and web content. At this point in time, with fast rising volumes of information to be searched and analyzed, companies need technologies to help them work with this proliferating data, integrate it with structured data, decipher what’s relevant, and determine why it’s relevant.

For instance, chat, e-mail, and phone logs represent customer touch points, which give them special significance for sales and marketing. Companies want to mine customer call logs to analyze sales patterns that might reveal high demand or, on the other end of the spectrum, product or service problems.

For example, my cable television supplier keeps information on my chats with a customer service representative and associates that information with my account record. If I communicate again on the same topic, a rep can quickly refer back to see how the situation was handled and resolved previously.

Staying with the cable television provider, in analyzing service uptime, customer complaints might be data points that reveal information about an outage pattern in a particular part of the country. So analysts could work with both structured and unstructured data to evaluate performance metrics and solve problems much quicker leading to more satisfied customers.

Who is using BI well and what are they doing?

Babineau: One of the most exciting things I’m seeing is the emergence of companies that are using business intelligence to support an enhanced experience for customers, partners, and suppliers. These are companies that serve up data that previously was just for internal use. For example, a business-to-business manufacturing company can let customers check inventory levels on specific items they want to buy, see status of orders, and get order tracking information.

After all, people want convenience, which means having direct, real-time access to information. When there’s no wait for a customer service rep during regular business hours, essentially you’re making your company easier to do business with.

In the telecom industry, companies open up internal data by giving customers real-time access to their own call records. Think how valuable this is to lawyers or consultants who bill by the hour. The telecom company provides verifiable documentation of billable consulting phone time. Not only is this useful in doing actual billing, it helps to determine which clients are the most profitable. Searching by variables in phone records you can see, for instance, how many calls to a particular number were placed and their time and duration. Mapping this information with financial data helps to decide which clients to spend more or less time with.

Another example is car dealerships. Dealers source vehicles online for local customers, which is far more convenient than calling around for the same information. And, while this information used to be considered quite proprietary, automobile companies today enable customers to see the same inventory information that the dealers can see. Again, convenience is the key factor. And with this level of transparency, a customer holds a stronger position in negotiating with a dealer, but the dealer usually retains the relationship and follow on business with the customer.

I predict that we’ll see far more of this kind of access to information in the future. For one thing, it saves you money. Self-service is far less expensive than assisted service. And people will appreciate you for providing instant, independent access – without a “gatekeeper”.

Given the opportunities BI offers, what’s holding some companies back?

Babineau: Although BI has been around for a long time, some people still fail to see that information is an asset. They stick to the view that technology is just the way they run the business, and based on this preconceived notion they won’t fund projects, even to investigate business intelligence opportunities. What they have to see is that managing information assets well is a must these days. Failing to do so can lead to poor customer satisfaction, non existent internal communication and lost revenue opportunities.

On the other hand, we find that many smaller, younger businesses, by their very nature, and because they don’t have legacy IT or institutionalized thinking, are more willing to think flexibly and explore BI options and share business analytics with their partners for mutual benefit.

Of course there are industries that theoretically could collaborate more and share data but can’t because of regulation or other restrictions. Health care tends to be rigidly protective of data regarding patient records, for instance.

Apart from sharing data with business partners or customers, what other BI possibilities can companies consider?

Babineau: We’re watching the rising importance of electronic discovery, or e-discovery for short, for legal cases. This is the process for seeking, finding, securing, tracing, and searching data for evidence in civil and criminal court cases.

As of December 2006 the U.S. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), which govern civil law processes in the U.S., require that an organization must be able to identify, by category and location, electronically stored information it may use to “support or defend claims”. The amendments also mandate that this capability should exist before a discovery request for specific information occurs.

Compliance with rules such as this has increased interest in analytics and BI because companies want quick access to data that they have confidence in, and to demonstrate proper data management, complete with an accurate, traceable history that shows the “lineage” of information and who has interacted with it.

In my consulting I see that many CIOs and corporate counsels still don’t know what information they store, where it is, and how much it would cost to produce it as evidence. There is a big need for improvement because the costs associated with FRCP compliance can be quite substantial. For example, during one case in 2005, it cost one bank $3 million to restore 3,700 backup tapes as evidence.

Is there an upside to all this regulation?

Babineau: The new legal process rules should serve as a catalyst to improve the overall understanding of information and to identify the right tools to make this understanding a reality. For instance, in the selection process a company would want to check that a part of a BI infrastructure includes discovery review tools that accommodate multiple formats, since it may be required under FRCP rules. It’s also important to determine that the tools are flexible enough to integrate with an existing document management system and that they really ensure confidentiality.

What future developments do you see for business intelligence?

Babineau: I see a big opportunity for BI as a service. Creating all the bridges between applications and connecting all the dots between data elements is just too complicated for some small and midsize enterprises. They might rather work with a trusted service provider for business intelligence, access control, and security – so they can focus on their business. It’s quite appealing to consider the lower implementation and maintenance costs. And from the regulatory compliance standpoint, working with a reliable third party is potentially an additional accountability factor.

I also am excited about the future of enterprise search and how it intersects with business intelligence. People with appropriate access, defined by their roles and security profiles, can search all data types, structured and unstructured, and the supporting software can link all kinds of information together intelligently. A highly beneficial aspect is that a user doesn’t have to know what the data sources or parameter values are.

I recall an example that Business Objects offered on this subject. An emergency room doctor could use search within BI to scour a broad set of data sources to find out how many instances of food poisoning have been reported in the past 24 hours, where people are affected, and determine common causes. This real-time access to trustworthy data could help medical professionals spot and prevent wide-spread outbreak of food-related illnesses.

The convergence of intelligent search with BI holds great promise. It enables the search of unstructured information assets, which may be as much as 80 percent of a company’s data, for inclusion into a BI system. The ability to aggregate various data types, cleanse them, and then analyze them adds much more dimension to BI than the traditional query, reporting, and online analytical processing standard.

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