Companies can see major improvements in operations using business intelligence software, but numerous technical, cultural and process challenges must be overcome first, according to users at this week's Business Intelligence Perspectives conference in Palm Desert, California.
Business intelligence rollouts have three dimensions -- technology, people and processes -- and the latter two are the most challenging of the trio, said Quaker Chemical CIO Bubba Tyler, one of the speakers yesterday. Quaker Chemical has been using analytical applications from SAS Institute over the past 10 years to run analysis and reporting operations.
"It was a nine-to-10-year process and a heck of a big investment for a company of our size," he said.
According to Tyler, Quaker Chemical moved ahead slowly and had to continually re-examine the business intelligence model it was implementing. The process also required the company to collaborate and share information on a global basis, prompting it to tie employees' cooperation with changes to their pay. Quaker also had to create a common language for use in its business intelligence operations -- a time-consuming process -- and speed up the collection of data, he said.
During a user roundtable moderated by Computerworld editor in chief Don Tennant, Andy George, senior vice president of technology at telecom billing processor ProfitLine, recommended that companies phase in business intelligence implementations. The San Diego-based company runs Business Objects SA's WebIntelligence software to analyze and audit customer bills. During ProfitLine's rollout, data validity was also a challenge, because too many people were accessing and corrupting it. That prompted the company to put a "czar" in charge to centrally maintain data integrity.
Security was a major issue for the city of Falls Church, Va., said panelist Shirley Hughes, the municipality's chief financial officer and general manager. When Falls Church moved from 2,200 separate spreadsheets to a more consolidated system, it implemented a security policy. All employees had to read and sign a document that explained proper procedures, such as not sharing passwords. In addition, all access to the business intelligence systems is "tightly controlled," said Hughes.
The proper maintenance of data being used in a business intelligence application is so crucial that a company should seek legal advice about what can and cannot be stored in the long term, said panelist Al Brill, senior managing director of technology services at Kroll OnTrack Inc. The Secaucus, N.J.-based company uses homegrown analytical systems to help collect and present data to lawyers who need it for court. He warned of "vampire" data that could linger in the system for years then "come back to bite you in the neck."
As an example, Brill cited an old e-mail that could be subpoenaed during future litigation and presented in a sinister light.
User access has to be monitored regularly and kept current, he said. If it isn't, someone who changes positions at a company might be accessing the system when they shouldn't. He also noted that business intelligence is potentially the biggest and most important technology investment a company might make.
"It deserves the kind of planning and thinking that a project that potentially means life and death for a company should have," Brill said. "I don't think there are any recipes for success, but there are a heck of a lot for failure."
The conference, which was sponsored by Computerworld and a number of business intelligence software vendors, began Monday and ends Thursday.