Agile BI ship has sailed

The battle over customer versus internal business processes requirements and priorities has been fought — and the internal processes lost. Game over. Customers are now empowered with mobile devices and ubiquitous cloud-based...


The battle over customer versus internal business processes requirements and priorities has been fought — and the internal processes lost. Game over. Customers are now empowered with mobile devices and ubiquitous cloud-based all-but-unlimited access to information about products, services, and prices.

Customer stickiness is extremely difficult to achieve as customers demand instant gratification of their ever changing needs, tastes, and requirements, while switching vendors is just a matter of clicking a few keys on a mobile phone. Forrester calls this phenomenon the age of the customer. The age of the customer elevates business and technology priorities to achieve:

  • Business agility. Forrester consistently finds one common thread running through the profile of successful organisations — the ability to manage change. In the age of the customer, business agility often equals the ability to adopt, react, and succeed in the midst of an unending fountain of customer driven requirements. Forrester sees agile organisations making decisions differently by embracing a new, more grass-roots-based management approach. Employees down in the trenches, in individual business units, are the ones who are in close touch with customer problems, market shifts, and process inefficiencies. These workers are often in the best position to understand challenges and opportunities and to make decisions to improve the business. It is only when responses to change come from within, from these highly aware and empowered employees, that enterprises become agile, competitive, and successful.
  • Information agility. Agile enterprises must gather customer and market knowledge and rapidly incorporate it into decisions. In order to support and promote business agility, enterprise knowledge workers need to be empowered with easy access to agile, flexible, and responsive enterprise business intelligence tools and applications. However, while organisations of all sizes made significant headway over the last several decades in their enterprise BI accomplishments, many organisations still struggle with making their data and information management, BI, and analytics environments agile.

Alas, enterprise grade BI platforms are often anything but agile. Indeed, all modern enterprise BI platforms are scalable and robust, support and promote a single version of the truth, and minimise operational risk. However, these capabilities carry a hefty price tag of complexity, rigidity, and inflexibility, and as a result they are slow to react to constantly changing customer and business requirements. This lack of BI agility promotes an unfortunate side effect — proliferation of shadow IT, “homegrown” BI applications”

A word of caution: Do not use the term Agile BI synonymously with the terms intuitive and user friendly — two hugely overused and hyped terms in BI. Unfortunately, these terms are highly subjective and qualitative. Point-and-click, drag-and-drop GUIs may be intuitive to an experienced professional with a background in command line interfaces, but not so obvious to a millennial who grew up with a thumb-typing mobile phone UI. And while menu- and prompt-driven instrumented (radio buttons, dialog boxes, etc.) applications may seem user friendly to left-brained people (who think in numbers and lists), right-brained office workers (who see the world in pictures and associations) may prefer an application driven by icons, visual associations, and artistic Infographics.

While mainly academic discussion of these terms may be thought-provoking, it’s not really actionable. Forrester takes a more pragmatic and practical approach and describes Agile BI in highly objective and quantifiable terms, which specifically address many of the shortcomings and limitations (rigid and restrictive data models, too much reliance on technology management professionals, and many others) of the traditional enterprise BI platforms, including platform features such as

  • IT-enabled BI self-service. What are the BI platform features that enable technology professionals to empower business user self-service capabilities? These features include cascading parameters and nested prompts, collaboration, data virtualisation and drill anywhere, parameterised reporting, prompt for columns, migration of user-sandbox-generated BI content to production, and write back.
  • BI automation. Does the BI platform support various self-service BI automation processes that allow business users to do more with less? Beyond commoditised and non-differentiated features like report batches, report scheduling, etc., these features should include such capabilities as auto information discovery, actionable BI, contextual BI, suggestive BI, and managing a full BI life cycle with a single integrated development environment (IDE).

Additionally, Agile BI requires capabilities that empower business users to be self-sufficient in their BI environment with little or no involvement from technology professionals. These capabilities are typically supported by BI platform features such as:

  • Self-provisioning applications and data. How efficiently can business users connect to new data sources and provision applications, data, and resources? This includes such capabilities as application sandboxes, data upload, data virtualisation and drill anywhere, elasticity, semantic layer, and mobile delivery.
  • Data integration, mashups, and wrangling. How efficiently and effectively can business users perform various data transformation tasks? This includes capabilities such as auto-modeling, calculated measures, data mashups, data wrangling, light weight data cleanup functions, and write back.
  • Effective user interfaces. How easily can business users create their own reports and dashboards and run data exploration and other relevant tasks? Going beyond highly commoditised and nondifferentiated graphical user interface (GUI) features like point-and-click and drag-and-drop, this criteria includes capabilities such as collaboration, data exploration and discovery, faceted navigation, guided navigation, information workplace integration, natural language processing (NLP), and search like GUI.

Last but not least, Agile BI requires rich advanced data visualisation (ADV) capabilities. Older definitions of ADV (versus static data graphs and charts) included visual querying (without writing SQL code), dynamic visualisations (where visualisations dynamically changed based on query results), and several others. These features, however, are table stakes in all modern BI platforms and no longer differentiate one vendor from another. Today we look for differentiated ADV capabilities such as:

  • Richness of ADV content. What are the BI platform ADV capabilities in terms of richness of data visualisation content like graphs and charts that are available out of the box? Includes such capabilities as cockpit gauges, custom charts and maps, geospatial representations, and infographics.
  • Data visualisation effectiveness. What are the BI platform ADV capabilities in terms of allowing business users to efficiently and effectively visualise data sets and act on the results? This includes capabilities such as animations, autosuggestions, modes of interaction, multiple dimensions, and storyboarding. Autosuggestions is a top differentiator in ADV these days. Look for capabilities to help the user select the best possible visualisation or chart type. Can the system analyse the input data, recognise the pattern and key field, and automatically propose a ‘best practice’ visualisation for an individual data set?

These bullets are only a starting point in your Agile BI journey. Access Forrester Agile BI Self Assessment Model to see all of the ~50 detailed Agile BI evaluation criteria (you can use it to self assess to see how Agile your current BI platforms are) and read our latest Forrester Agile BI Platforms Q3 2014 to see how top 16 BI vendors stack up against these criteria.

Posted by Boris Evelson

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