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Month: February 2009

Let’s call the whole thing DI

You say dayta and I say dahta. You say business intelligence—and now Colin White and Claudia Imhoff say “decision intelligence.” They may want you to say it, too, depending on what you mean.

Now or later—yesterday afternoon it didn’t sound clear just when—they’d like you to say “decision framework.” Perhaps that’s in addition to “decision intelligence” or instead of it. I’m not sure.

They’re both veterans of technology wars, fads, shifts, realignments and convergences. Both are among the most eminent of BI thought leaders. They’ve given their suggestion a lot of thought.

You may ask why? For one thing, they explain, business intelligence has become too closely associated with analytics and data warehousing. They decided it would be easier to offer a new term than try to straighten out the old one. What will keep the same thing from happening to the new term? A fair question.

A second reason for the new term: they’d like to get your attention.

They hope to have the attention of several hundred attendees tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. at TDWI World Conference in Las Vegas. They’ll explain in detail during their keynote. The hot breakfast, restored by popular demand since last August, won’t hurt.

Coffee with “Tiberius”

I ran into one of my first and best TDWI friends this morning. Even after all this time, he cannot yet be named publicly and, perhaps because of that, is free with musings on the industry and other things. We’ve tentatively code-named him Tiberius, after a meeting room at Caesar’s Palace.

This morning he’s thinking of a New Yorker cartoon. Two men at a bar are talking, and one says, “Are you just pissing and moaning, or can you verify what you’re saying with data?”

Our conversations are not always fact based, but we do our best. This morning we did it over coffee and, in his case, a crepe, and in my case a yogurt parfait.

Oh, please, he says of the Republican response to Obama’s fine speech last night. Oh, please, “let’s get the stupid out of the discourse.” Bobby Jindal complained of research money for honeybees, as if the rationale for it were not fact based. Honeybees sound silly, and he relishes a teenage-like snicker, with no mention of the peril to agriculture. Let him eat stupidity.

“People do things differently,” Tiberius sighs. “Even this,” he says holding up a USA Today, “is probably too complicated for [the Republicans].”

Finally, it’s the season for rational problem solving, something faith-based Republicans have forgotten about. Too bad they’ve left so much wreckage.

Our shared fascination with con artistry came to mind. That may seem to explain our tolerance for Vegas, but it does not. We actually like the camp—for a few days. We’re both going home today.

Data intimacy

Long before Scott Davis made the self-service ETL tool he calls Lyza, he tried to find out how analysts really work. He remembers in particular the woman in a focus group who said, “I want to stay close to the data.”

He didn’t understand at first. The data was right in front of her, neatly summarized. But she meant all of the data, every little bit of it. She wanted to snap open a zillion-row-long window that she could scroll down to see the figures flip by. (Yes, you can; I saw it yesterday.) She wouldn’t try to read them, she’d only see their shapes. She could say, for example, “Hmm, I see that just two thirds are under 1000.” Davis calls that visualization with browse—as legitimate a use of “visualization” as any I’ve heard of.

He also thought about how people use Excel. In fact, it helps explain’s Excel’s popularity. They have the data, and they have the formulas, and you can reveal either one. If a number shows up that doesn’t look right—say it’s six figures instead of five—you just look at the formula. You say, “Oh, that’s the annual figure. I forgot to divide by twelve.”

Something similar goes on at all levels of analysis: a rapid back and forth from question to answer, back to a rephrased question, and back to an adjusted answer.

Forget the flow charts. Forget the “data train,” a metaphor I admit to having used. Analysis is more like what my labrador does when she knows there’s something good nearby. She sniffs in what looks like a random pattern until you realize she’s narrowing the range.

What drives analysts crazy about working with IT, he says, is that the data’s taken away. The conversation goes like this: the IT guy asks what the analyst wants; the analytst describes her best guess; the IT guy goes away and does it. But that may not be what the analyst really needed, and the anallyst may not realize it until the first data’s tried and proves inadequate or suggests yet another path.

I can relate, because it’s like writing. I do a lot of scribbling and writing over, and I don’t have time to explain it. If I had to tell a typist what to write, I’d write much less.

Visualize the bumper stickers: “free the analysts” but also “free IT.”

Now, Larissa T. Moss has her doubts. Perhaps she’ll sit for a demo. I’d like to hear what she says.

Fooled by proximity?

Almost the same moment I read that for the fourth year in a row executives rate BI the top tech priority in 2009, I hear Tableau Software’s news: last week saw the most downloads of trial software ever. “Not by a little, by a lot,” says marketing and PR VP Elissa Fink.

The poll of Australian executives, by Gartner, also indicated that purchases faced more scrutiny. The press release mentions “CFOs doing final negotiations on pricing and maintenance.” I assume that Australian business is not significantly different from U.S. business.

Tableau, of course, lands like a mint on most CFOs’ pillows. Remember the old Apple ad for the first iMac, which describes the “three steps to installation”: Step one, unpack. Step two, plug in. There was no step three. Tableau needing “maintenance”?

Fink can’t explain the surge. There’s been no recent change in marketing. Does the Gartner poll help explain it? Possibly.

I’m sorry if this sounds like marketing. I happen to like Tableau’s product, not to mention their foodie-friendly user conferences.

Let’s see what other new-wave, light-on-their-feet products might have news next week at the TDWI conference in Las Vegas.

Time for traditional BI vendors to “pass the baton”

The shouts from the back of the BI room seem to be getting louder. In various ways, they’re saying let Big BI die.

Former TDWI education director Dave Wells, visual analytics critic Stephen Few, and Tableau Software CEO Christian Chabot are back there. Others, too.

Last spring, Wells proposed a new, people-centric definition of business intelligence. (See my Q&A with him for TDWI.). On November 18, he published “The Changing Face of Business Intelligence.” He predicted that the industry will soon “experience change that will have broad, deep and lasting impact.”

In early January, Tableau CEO Christian Chabot talked about the failure of BI platforms to deliver the BI promise. He seemed to laugh in surprise at interviewer Carl Weinschenk’s comparison of Chabot’s thoughts to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The comparison was apt.

Now last Thursday, Few sounded like he’d had about enough with BI tools “entrenched in a techno-centric paradigm.” He wrote in his weblog, “It’s time for traditional BI vendors to pass the baton.”

I believe it’s now time for the vendors with real decision support solutions to thank the BI industry for the technical infrastructure that it’s provided, but then set themselves apart as a new industry, different from but complementary to BI. Much as groups of people throughout history have arisen and set themselves apart to fix what cannot be fixed within the reigning power structure, the decision-support solutions that people need will only make their mark on the world by leaving the calcified fortress of BI.

Thomas Jefferson might have put it this way.

When in the course of business it becomes necessary to dissolve the bands which have connected us to failed technology, after a long train of abuses and usurpations, it is our right, it is our duty, to throw off such technology and to adopt new tools for decision making.

Big changes can seem to come suddenly. The Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, the Tech Bubble of the ’90s, and Lehman Brothers all came down to widespread surprise.

I don’t put much faith in predictions. But these three independent thought leaders are all pointing in about the same direction. I’ll be looking for changes coming that way.