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Month: April 2012

The future of BI in two words

What’s the future of BI? Last fall, one sharp source of mine answered, “Two words: Tableau and QlikView. You didn’t hear it here.”

Those are startling words coming from that source, a well-regarded BI consultant known for big-name clients and their big deployments.

At about the same time, a column of mine appeared in Information Management titled “Don’t call it BI” — in which I mentioned Tableau and a few smaller tools. A reader emailed, “You should also become familiar with QlikView.”

My many Tableau-using friends say QlikView is hardly worth a look. Poor visualization! Control panels! Scripting! “It’s so — yesterday,” one emails.

It’s “yesterday” to some yet it’s the future to others. It’s time for a look.

Both Tableau and QlikView promise the same magic: Listen to one pitch and you might think that you’re listening to the other. Each sets itself up against traditional, big-iron BI. Each claims to empower business users by giving them all the data and control they need for free discovery. Each is easy to use. Go inside each tent, though, and you see how different they are.

Metaphorically speaking, Tableau is West Coast. It’s built for discovery by the individual. Just show up and ride on the breeze, the demos seem to say, free as a seed fairy on a meadow. The inevitable mistakes of discovery are quickly undone and forgotten. Create the most dazzling visualizations — “vizzes” — thanks to built-in best practices that nudge you toward beauty and punch.

One of the most attractive aspects is users’ effervescence. They seem to be riding on the wind and solving business problems all at once. Their rapture sweeps me away every time I’m near it.

If Tableau is West Coast, QlikView is East Coast. Its community is bigger, the third-party add-ons are more plentiful, support seems more available, and overall workflow feels more structured. It too is built for discovery, but it’s discovery rooted in community. The “associative experience” reveals relevant data, and you can create your own views and in quick succession ask any questions, anticipated or not. But unless you’re working alone, someone else probably defined the data and its structure for you. This is QlikView’s counterpart to Tableau’s meadow, though it’s more like a manicured garden than Tableau’s unfenced field of daisies.

QlikView’s boundaries may be more apparent than Tableau’s, but I suspect that there’s at least as much power there. I just haven’t yet been able to judge it for myself well enough.

The trouble for me is that I’ve used it alone, as if stuck in a remote cabin. Though even Thoreau might have liked the “associative experience,” QlikView really comes alive only when you link to others.

As in Tableau, any QlikView user can create or modify a workspace, a document linked to one or more sets of data with any number of displays. Unlike Tableau, QlikView isn’t so finicky about data; for one thing, linking to Excel spreadsheets is easier.

I can’t speak with assurance just yet on the differences between QlikView and Tableau Server — more on that later — though I think I see a QlikView edge there.

One other advantage for QlikView is clear: built-in collaboration. True, Tableau workbooks can be passed around in a variety of ways forever. But as with our atomized life on the West Coast, such a community would be for me, the hypothetical manager of a group, too loose for comfort.

Tableau users will shudder, as if about to be extradited back to Maine. “Great, central authority all over again,” they would say. Yet when I imagine myself managing a group, I would feel disabled without a tight, integrated social structure.

“It’s the soft stuff that matters,” TechTarget research director Wayne Eckerson likes to say. Such stuff is what interests me more than anything: Who are these people and how did they choose what they did?

Have most Qlik or Tableau users chosen their tool the way most of us choose spouses, religion, and politics — guided by our relationships? How many software shoppers qualified their candidates with lists of requirements and features and followed through based on evidence? Did they do what a veteran sales person at a large BI vendor sees?: “They gather requirements, they issue RFPs, they visit trade shows, they talk to vendors, and ultimately they pick one because they like its color.”

I think it’s usually about “color,” color being the cover story for something most people can’t quite describe. For now, though, I’m happy to say that at least my first question has been answered: Yes, QlikView belonged on that list in “Don’t call it BI.”

Still a “tool” by any other name

A marketing manager I know stopped me in mid sentence. He didn’t want me to call his business intelligence product a “tool.”

Why? “It sounds small,” he said. But it is small, I pointed out. It’s smaller than many others in its space. It’s downloaded in under a minute and unpacks itself on a desktop in a few minutes.

But he waved that rationale away as if it were a fly, and I should have known. Marketing people, like the parents of gladiators, prefer their progeny to be perceived as big. Bigness casts dark shadows over competitors and conceals weakness. Industry insiders give big competitors good odds.

Users, though, have more immediate, personal concerns. They want something that feels good, works consistently, and adapts easily. This describes a “tool,” a label that should be taken as a compliment, not an insult.

To understand the value of good tools, read what farmer and essayist Wendell Berry writes about them. Over the years, he’s thought about them often, such as in his 1970s essay on the Marugg grass scythe.

It is the most satisfying hand tool that I have ever used. In tough grass it cuts a little less uniformly than the power scythe. In all other ways, in my opinion, it is a better tool because, it is light, it handles gracefully and comfortably even on steep ground, it is far less dangerous, it is quiet and makes no fumes, it is much more adaptable. In rank growth one narrows the cut and shortens the stroke. It always starts — provided the user will start. Aside from reasonable skill and care in use, there are no maintenance problems. It requires no fuel or oil. It runs on breakfast. Its cheaper to buy than most weed eaters and is cheaper to use than any other power mower. And best of all its good exercise.

I’d bet that everyone dreams, at least secretly, of software that matches the Marugg. Sadly, though, people with other agendas usually make the final decision — people whose careers depend on buying not tools but “solutions.” My friend the marketing manager has to appeal to those who write the checks. But I don’t care. I’ll keep saying “tool.”