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Collaborative BI agility guides businesses through rocky economic seas

Nicole Laskowski, News Editor

In two years, WildHorse Resources LLC, a privately held oil and gas company, swelled from a tiny business of 10 employees into a group of about 70. While that’s still small, the Houston-based company managed its exponential growth during a shaky economic time. Those factors spurred WildHorse to look beyond Excel and at a wider array of

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business intelligence (BI) tools.

“Our business is extremely dynamic,” said Steve Habachy, vice president of operations. “We tend to shift direction as the market changes direction. That can change what you’re going to produce and not produce.”

Supporting an agile work environment became essential for any BI tool WildHorse would invest in, but so was another trait: Collaboration. Almost half of WildHorse employees -- about 30 in total -- spend time on the road disconnected from office meetings and decision makers. Bringing them into the conversation also became a priority, Habachy said.

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According to industry experts, the link between agility and collaboration is gaining popularity within BI. The reasons for this are varied but essentially hinge on a changing business environment. Companies today are operating within a more chaotic, competitive, global terrain than ever before.

The new conditions require businesses make decisions quickly to adapt to change, all while trying to manage scores of data, reports and analyses and address employees’ shifting expectations. This isn’t quite how BI has traditionally provided support, said Barry Devlin, the founder of 9sight Consulting, based in Cape Town, South Africa.

“BI has always been something that was very much a personal exercise,” Devlin said, adding that business intelligence, which used to be called decision support, tends to focus on product rather than process. “But I think we need to move from decision support to decision-making support.”

Collaboration: Why now?
The concept of collaborative BI, or collaborative intelligence, is not a new one. But in the last six months or so, vendors -- especially those that sell data discovery products -- have touted their latest features.

In October, QlikTech released QlikView 11 and its “social business discovery,” which enables multiple users to interact with the same data through a shared dashboard. In November, Tibco released Spotfire 4.0, providing, in part, an enhanced version of its social networking tool, tibbr. By January, tibbr also included geo-location capabilities.

Like other BI terms, the word collaboration is interpreted differently from one vendor to the next. The Denver, Colo.-based Lyzasoft, for example, built its line of products around social capabilities, whereas Microsoft SharePoint, a popular collaborative tool, is known for its content management capabilities.

Regardless of a product’s strengths or the nebulous nature of the term itself, experts agree collaborative BI should support the process of making a data-driven decision. Facilitating ways to do so has never been more vital -- or more complex, according to experts.

“BI has reached a point where it’s become important enough and easy enough to use that businesses don’t need one or two specialized analysts anymore,” said Donald Farmer, product advocate for the Radnor, Pa.-based QlikTech. “Now a lot more people are involved with BI tools and, as a result, there are more analyses, more reports flying around and more people are interested in them.”

The number of people analyzing data is growing, but so is the rate at which businesses need to make data-driven decisions.

“The world we are living in is highly chaotic,” Devlin said, “and it’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen day to day or week to week.”

Don’t leave it to email
Businesses successful in this new environment -- the Googles, the Amazons, the eBays -- utilize a peer-to-peer rather than command-and-control style of leadership, Devlin said. But building (let alone embracing) a workplace where that kind of structure thrives can be overwhelming. Putting aside complications like the cultural shift this would entail, here’s a more tangible reason to consider: Rudimentary tools -- like email -- may hinder a collaborative BI process, and collaboration in general.

“Email is so formal, it’s hard to get the tone across,” said Habachy of WildHorse Resources, which ultimately chose Tibco as its vendor. Habachy said the company is interested in eventually deploying tibbr, which can “get the creative juices flowing” and allow for “spontaneity in responses” in a way email can’t.

Experts echo Habachy’s comment: Collaborative tools should support the crux of why employees tackle problems by piling into a room in the first place -- namely, brainstorming.

“You’re never going to get to a fully baked idea except by way of a half-baked idea,” said Scott Davis, co-founder and CEO of Lyzasoft.

Today vendors are striving to produce tools that provide a virtual kind of space for brainstorming sessions, especially for employees on the road or living in different corners of the world. And the fact that they look and feel like social networking platforms is no accident.

“I believe social networking, enterprise 2.0, whatever you want to call it, that way of doing business is going to become the norm,” Devlin said.

Devlin said the drive for social networking-type features in the workplace is directly related to a younger generation making its way into more influential positions, but Davis believes the interest in social capabilities at work is much bigger than that.

“I don’t think this has to do with age,” Davis said. “Kids experimented with this stuff, but we have all become accustomed to it and have expectations that user-generated content is perceptible. That is a new idea.”

Collaboration: How do I get started?
Businesses ready to embark on a project to deploy collaborative BI tools need to have support from the highest levels of the organization.

“You’ve got to do this from the top down,” Devlin said. “At the CEO and the executive level, it must be understood that the way decision making happens in your organization today is simply not fast enough, not agile enough and not innovative enough to succeed in the marketplace.”

After executives understand the value of collaborative tools, the company will need to decide on the type of tool to invest in. Experts warn: This can get tricky.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” Farmer said.

Just because collaboration tools exist in the workplace doesn’t mean employees will use them. To avoid this kind of rejection, Farmer advises businesses first study their employees.

“There’s a rhythm or there’s a pattern to collaboration, which is going to be right for your company,” he said. “You can’t impose it. You have to follow your users and see how they’re collaborating today.”

After purchasing the tool, another potential hurdle can stem from lack of experience. This, said Lyndsay Wise, president of the analyst firm WiseAnalytics, can be overcome through training.

“Even though solutions are easier to use, the reality is not everyone’s comfortable with BI,” she said.

She recommends businesses build in training sessions that may take up half of a workday or may last an hour. Plus, she said, it’s important for those who will be using the product to feel some ownership over the investment. One way to do this, she said, is to build up the tool through a kind of marketing campaign. A case study Wise was familiar with tacked up posters, held “lunch and learns” and demonstrations of the tool. The campaign was successful and netted more than five times the number of expected employees to a training session.

However a business chooses to do it, Wise said, collaboration, which she referred to “as the glue” for today’s organizations, is vital. Other industry experts echoed her sentiment.

“Between information and innovation is interaction. Always,” Davis said.