Business Objects chief juggles independence, integration with SAP

Nearly three months after closing the biggest merger in its history, SAP has set the dual challenge of integrating Business Objects' BI tools more tightly with its enterprise resource planning software, while also maintaining the independence of those tools to appeal to non-SAP customers.

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We'll see. We work with Microsoft, they OEM some of our technology inside their portfolio, so it's a good relationship. I could see a road map that says we will continue to partner and grow more integrated as we work with a new Office suite and as we work with SharePoint and build collaboration using their tools, or I could see us moving into more of a competitive direction if Microsoft is unwilling to cooperate or if they insist on adding functionality that gets more and more competitive. That road is open, too.

CIO magazine just published an article entitled, "Business Intelligence: A technology category in tumult." These big BI mergers -- Oracle-Hyperion, IBM-Cognos, SAP-Business Objects -- create uncertainty for customers about road maps and where the technology is heading. Why would anyone risk starting a major BI project today?

Schwarz: My experience with customers is that they can't wait. The business drivers for BI are so dramatic and so pressing that no one waits just because they are uncertain about what the vendors are doing. They simply drag us in and have us explain what's going on.

BI vendors talk about how businesses can improve performance by analyzing data from multiple sources, but when you talk to IT people they say it's hard to get even two clean, reliable sources of data for real-time analytics. Why is BI still so hard to do?

Schwarz: The fundamental problem rests in the following: There are on average, in any sizeable organization, six systems that deal with customers -- you've got tools for selling, order processing, billing, maintenance, marketing. These systems were traditionally built independently and each has their own way of describing a customer. So this data is to some degree incorrect, and reconciling which of these systems is the primary, accurate representation of the business is very hard.

So the idea of master data management, which in essence is not a tool issue but a political issue -- figuring out who is the real owner of the information -- is where the real problem arises, and it's different for every customer. So it's hard to come up with a solution which says, out of the box, here's what you do.

You need someone to do the analysis to understand what the sources of data are, how good the systems are that produced that data, which of the systems holds the real canonical version of that information, and then align your systems to that one. Because you can clean up your data once, but if the underlying systems that created the data remain the same, a nanosecond later you need to clean it all again.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has said you can overcome this problem by putting all your data in an Oracle database, but obviously that won't work for all customers. So are we just left to struggle with this problem?

Schwarz: I think we are. It's good for our business by the way.

The interesting thing is that many customers can't agree among themselves. I had dinner last night with four CIOs that represented four divisions at a large customer. They are to some degree different businesses, but at the end of the day they deal with the same end consumer, even though the consumer has four different relationships with the company.

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