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Meta Group's Folger: The devil's in the data

BALTIMORE, Md. -- David Folger is vice president of Web and Collaboration Strategies at Stamford, Conn.-based researcher Meta Group where he covers the market for business intelligence (BI) and enterprise portal technologies.

What do you think the driving issue is today in the BI market at large?
One of them is that there are a lot of people that deployed enterprise applications like SAP, PeopleSoft and Siebel. All of those things generate a need for more business intelligence and reporting. You've got all this great data and the management knows they spent a lot of money on the systems to manage it but they can't get any reports. So, there's a lot of pressure on IT to provide reports.

Another area is externalizing the reporting systems to link to customers and suppliers. People have realized that there's a lot of potential savings in cutting down on call centers. It costs a lot to have someone call and ask you a simple question in terms of infrastructure and personnel. With Web site technology a lot of these questions can be answered at a considerably lower expense. And it's a lot cheaper to track procurement issues. Who's the leader in the BI market today?

I would say that it's a tie between Cognos and Business Objects. It's hard to call one of them the leader because they're almost exactly the same size. One could argue that SAS [Institute] is even bigger but it's kind of got its own little world of customers so I don't really look at them as a leader. Information Builders is about half the size of Cognos or Business Objects so they're a strong medium-sized player. What are the obstacles in the market right now?

The economy is down overall, but one of the general obstacles of reporting is the data itself. You've got to get the data clean, organized, coordinated and understood. Otherwise you're just reporting off of bad data. Beautifully formatted data that is bad on some level isn't really going to do you much good. It's usually more expensive to deal with the data upfront than it is to deal with the BI tools. There are a lot of classic cases of sales teams developing a report and then a working group creating its own report building off of slightly different data and then they present different information to management who's only left frustrated by the inconsistency. It blows the credibility of everyone involved. You've got to have focus around the data architecture. Where does enterprise portal technology fit into this picture?

I think that enterprise portals are starting to drive some BI. People are focusing on these portals to aggregate all the information that you need to make decisions. And it isn't just structured information from databases, it's also documents and text. The portals themselves don't really create the reports, they interface into the business intelligence systems to have a lot more effect. BI makes so much sense as a concept, at this point is it still applicable for companies that haven't made serious investments in powerful applications like ERP, CRM and the like?

Yes, it predated all that stuff. Companies have always had some kind of accounting system. They may not have called it an ERP system and it may have been home grown, but they've always had the concept. It's totally applicable even if you don't have any of those standard packages because it was around before they even existed. BI isn't a totally new field, it's just been known by many names. It was called decision support, management information systems and a handful of others. It's all the same general idea. We're hearing a lot more about data cleansing from customers and vendors alike. Obviously, you feel this is a pretty significant piece of the BI puzzle. What advice do you give companies around this movement?

One thing is having the right data model so you know what data you've got, where it's coming from, and what it means. This sounds trivial but it really isn't. You have legacy systems and you have a database. The person who created that database and designed that system may be retired and it's often poorly documented so you don't even know what the data means. Understanding the data model often turns put to be a problem.

Then there are cleansing issues with erroneous data, bad information or misspellings. A lot of that has to be looked at when you try to get the data clean. And then there is this consistency issue, you need to organize your organizational definitions of data and make sure that everyone is on the same page as you work toward BI. That's always easier to say than to do, especially in a big company. Is the economy having a deep effect on the BI market?

It's been pretty strong overall. The BI market itself hasn't suffered that much over the economic downturn. It may be flat or growing a little but it was growing by 35% year over. I think it will come back though, once the economy recovers. What's the most important factor for the BI market looking down the road?

There are a couple, one is the idea of opening up the products with things like Web services to allow the integration of data and reports across organizations, even extended supply chains. Another is the idea is that as the pace of business increases you've got to get closer and closer to real time. It requires you to change the way you do things. The data warehousing model where you put data into a data warehouse and use it to look at historical data. That works up to a certain point but eventually people want up-to-the-minute data and the historical model breaks down a little bit. I think that will continue to be a challenge, to prove how current your information is.

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