My Opinion (and Yours) about Fact-Based Decisions

A single version of the truth that we can all disagree about.

Yesterday was election day in the United States. We elect our House of Representatives every two years. Senate terms are 6 years, so there’s only a handful of 100 seats up for grabs during any election cycle. There are basically two facts in the election outcome: Republicans extending their majority in the House with 243 seats and taking leadership in the Senate with 52 seats.

2014 US Election Results Washington Post
image courtesy The Washington Post

But there are a variety of opinions. Search through various media sources and you can find an analysis piece that meshes with your core beliefs. Liberal or conservative. Republican or Democrat. American or not. Fan of President Obama or otherwise. We’ve got you covered.

In the analytics industry, we’re frequently reminded by our tool vendors how awful it could be that users might show up to a meeting and argue over different sets of facts, especially with the current batch of “data discovery” tools that allow users to (gasp) analyze numbers that may not have come from the enterprise data warehouse. But an election is proof that you can have a single version of the truth- the vote counts- and still have an endless buffet of opinions about what the election results mean and what will or should happen next.

This phenomenon is not limited to politics. Perhaps your organization’s sales are up. Perhaps they’re not. Maybe that new product is beating sales expectations. Maybe it isn’t. Even if the facts aren’t in dispute, there may not be consensus on the next steps for leadership to take. We’re all human. And we all excel at making any set of facts fit our perception of reality, whether true or not. We’ll see what we want to see.

In the US government, we have “checks and balances” that allow a diverse set of voices to forge the (often messy) path forward. May it be so in our own organizations.

Food for thought.

 

Successful Business Intelligence

Cindi Howson is back with a second edition of Successful Business Intelligence.

Successful Business Intelligence, Second Edition by Cindi Howson (Mcgraw-Hill Osborne Media,
ISBN 978-0071809184) is a significant revision to the first edition, which was published in 2007. Cindi Howson is well known in the SAP BusinessObjects community as the author of SAP BusinessObjects 4.0: The Complete Reference as well as earlier editions for XI R2 and 6.0. But she is also a lecturer for The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) and publishes research on multiple business intelligence tools at BIScorecard.com.

Successful Business Intelligence by Cindi Howson

The book is organized around the results of The Successful BI survey conducted in 2012. Although several of the case studies will mention specific tools, the book is intended for BI practitioners regardless of the tools that they are using. The book is written in a manner that can be understood by anyone working with business intelligence, whether business or technical, staff or management.

Books such as Successful Business Intelligence can be tricky to read because we are all tempted to underline or quote passages that reinforce our built-in biases about what “successful” BI looks like while ignoring other passages that highlight deficiencies in our approach. This isn’t a flaw of this book or its author, but of ourselves— the readers. Successful Business Intelligence provides a descriptive narrative for multiple approaches to business intelligence, rather than a single prescriptive method. No silver bullet exists because there are so many variables that make every organization’s BI implementation unique. But the successful implementations profiled in the book have found some fundamental principles that have allowed their BI implementations to achieve significant business impact. As the author suggests:

There is no clear yardstick for successful business intelligence. While the industry would like to give a single, objective measure— such as return on investment (ROI)— the reality is that ROI is derived from imprecise inputs upon which few stakeholders agree. Interestingly, the most successful business intelligence deployments don’t use ROI as a measure of success. Instead, there are multiple measures of success, with varying degrees of importance and accuracy.

While most organizations struggle with both technical challenges and organizational or “people” challenges, my personal bias is that the latter presents more obstacles to successful BI than the former. Fortunately, this book deals with both sets of challenges and provides thought-provoking material to discuss with your BI peers, hopefully over some good coffee.

At this time of year, Successful Business Intelligence makes a great stocking stuffer and a good read to curl up with over the winter holidays. It will definitely provide some new ideas to try out in 2014.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

SAP Analytics Roadmaps: What’s New and What’s Next?

SAP has updated its analytics roadmaps.

Everybody likes roadmaps. Today is old news, tell us about tomorrow and how long we’ll have to wait for it. Last month, SAP updated its product roadmaps for analytic solutions. While the roadmaps are helpful, they’re never as detailed as we like, but with good reason from SAP’s point of view. Or any vendor for that matter. Blogger John Gruber neatly summarized the vendor position in a recent post about his Vesper app for iOS (see related Daring Fireball blog, Vesper: What’s New and What’s Next).

Our policy, like that of many companies, is not to comment on future plans or work in progress. There are many good reasons that companies as big as Apple and as small as one-person shows adhere to such a policy. One reason is to keep attention focused on what is already available. Another is that keeping your mouth shut about work in progress is a way to implicitly under-promise and over-deliver. When a company says “We plan to ship X in the next three months” and it turns out to take six months, customers are naturally disappointed.

When you say what’s coming next, people naturally want to know when. And when you tell them how long you think it will take, you’re giving them a guess, but to the customer it feels like a promise. And at heart, we’re all optimists about how long our work will take. In short, talking about work in progress and future plans is often a recipe for disappointing your customers.

John Gruber, Daring Fireball

You can access the updated SAP BusinessObjects roadmap by visiting the SAP Service Marketplace road map landing page (S-ID required), clicking on Product and Solution Roadmaps then clicking on Analytics. With any luck, no thanks to the SAP Service Marketplace’s horrible bookmarking capabilities (which according to its roadmap will soon be updated in a sweeping redesign), you will end up on a page like this one.

SAP Roadmaps for Analytics

 

I have no doubt that SAP product planners also want to know “when can we ship?”, but it’s not always easy to pinpoint when a rough prototype can blossom into a fully polished product. While the roadmaps are short on specific release dates, it’s clear that SAP analytics customers are going to see some interesting innovations and updates in 2014.

I’ll have more to say in future articles about specific items in the new roadmaps. But for now, take a moment to locate and download them yourself. Please share any questions or comments you have about the new roadmaps in the comments section below.

Against the Grain

The New York Times, responding to Nate Silver’s move to ESPN.

Man walking through field

There’s an interesting post on the New York Times web site about the departure of Nate Silver to ESPN. And as usual, some succinct and sassy commentary from John Gruber on his Daring Fireball blog. But the New York Times’ editor Margaret Sullivan had this to say about Nate Silver.

He was, in a word, disruptive.

Nate Silver is an American statistician who correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 2012 United States presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. His Five Thirty Eight blog has become a popular feature of the New York Times web site and his recent book, The Signal and the Noise, became an instant best-seller after the presidential election.

There are some clear parallels in his story to our own stories in the field of analytics and BI. Fact-based decision making from business intelligence frequently goes against the grain of The Established Way of How We Do Things Around Here. Wayne Eckerson captures this maverick spirit, seen in the seven people profiled in his latest book Secrets of Analytic Leaders. Administering a business intelligence platform or even a corporate analytics program pales in complexity to the challenges- both with people and technology- in changing organizational culture to a fact-based, data-saturated culture. The process is frequently disruptive. It takes guts, an even temperament, and a long-term focus.

But as Nate Silver apparently discovered, sometimes it also requires a career move.

Brand New Day

The Twitter handles, they are a-changin’.

Have you heard this song before?

How many of you people out there
Been hurt in some kind of love affair
And how many times do you swear that you’ll never love [an analytics vendor] again?

How many lonely, sleepless nights
How many lies, how many fights
And why would you want to put yourself through all that again?

Lyrics from Sting’s 1999 hit Brand New Day? Or the pitch from that Tableau salesperson that keeps calling? No matter.

SAP Analytics Square 600

Today is April 22, the big day that the BusinessObjects twitter feed transforms into SAP Analytics (see related SCN article, @BusinessObjects Twitter Handle Changing to @SAPAnalytics on April 22. Sure, you can still tweet about BusinessObjects and use the #BOBJ hashtag, but clearly the times are a-changin’.

Twitter isn’t the only place where SAP’s BusinessObjects brand is no longer to be found. The signs hanging from trade show ceilings were pulled down a couple of years ago (see related article, Whistling Past the Brand Graveyard with BusinessObjects). The BusinessObjects brand was booted from the menus of the SAP Service Marketplace and removed from Enterprise Information Management (EIM) products like Data Services last year (read Understanding the Recent Branding Changes for Analytics Solutions from SAP from the SAP Analytics Blog). And if you’ve installed the latest Support Pack 5 for SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the BusinessObjects brand has been removed from the Windows Start menu.

Due to their popularity and familiarity, some brands continue to live- even after an acquisition. You can still find Jif peanut butter and Folgers coffee in United States supermarkets even though those brands were acquired by Smuckers several years ago. But you can no longer take a ValuJet flight to Florida for your summer holiday. It seems like Crystal Reports is here to stay, although SAP- like the BusinessObjects company it acquired in 2008- still struggles with how to apply the “Crystal” brand to other products. And don’t even think about touching NetWeaver’s brand!

BusinessObjects is an unusual brand because it both describes a software company that no longer exists as well as a product that still does. If you assume BusinessObjects is merely a company name, it makes total sense that customers should embrace the idea that SAP is now the company that provides their software. However, if you assume BusinessObjects is a product name, phasing it out becomes more complicated.

At the organizations that I consult with, “SAP” isn’t just a vendor. It’s shorthand for “the system that runs our company”. It’s “what we enter data into”. In contrast, BusinessObjects is “our reporting platform” or “our BI tool”. It’s “what we get data out of”. It even has cute pet names like “BO” and “BOB-J”. See the difference? As a consultant, I follow SAP’s branding moves closely- it’s part of my job. But what about the millions of users who only have a casual relationship with the BI platform? If the SAP brand is applied to everything, which words- that can be repeated in polite company- will these casual business users use to refer to the SAP analytics suite while distinguishing it from the business suite?

Regardless of the branding strategy or its coherence, that is the question that I hope SAP’s product marketing professionals will ponder. Preferably over a hot cup of Smuckers coffee.

Related Articles

What future do you see for the BusinessObjects brand? Will it be dumped next month at SAP SAPPHIRE for the upcoming BI 4.1 release? Dropped whenever BI 5.0 arrives? Or live on but in a limited role?

Less Magic in the Gartner Magic Quadrant

Is SAP getting crowded out of Gartner’s Business Intelligence leaders quadrant?

Here is the 2012 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms published in February 2012.

gartner-mq-2012

 

And here is the 2013 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms published in February 2013.

gartner-mq-2013

 

There are some obvious trends, which are clearly visualized on the Gartner Magic Quadrant Over Time, courtesy of Tableau.  Tableau and Tibco are, rightly so, making a big deal of their first appearance in the leaders quadrant. But it looks like one vendor in particular needs a sprinkle of magic fairy dust before it’s “leader” status turns into a “visionary” pumpkin.

With so many vendors ordained as leaders, SAP Mentor Jamie Oswald wonders if analysts like Gartner still have a relevant place in the customer buying decision (see Jamie’s article Modern Magic).

What do you think about the crowded field of leaders in the 2013 Gartner Magic Quadrant?

You can’t expect to make something beautiful the first time

“Your first projects are gonna suck, and that’s okay”

Jerr Thorp
Photo Credit: Ken Tisuthiwongse via http://blprnt.com

Mashable has a fantastic interview with data visualization expert Jer Thorp.

It’s the same thing with almost everything. There are so many people who I hear from who are like, ‘I really want to do this, what are some books, what should I read?’ You just have to do it.

. . .

The two things that I always tell people is that: First you need to just get started with it, and admit that the things that your first projects are gonna suck, and that’s okay. Y’know, you can’t expect to make something beautiful the first time. My first data visualization was terrible.

The second thing I tell my students is to think about something that’s close to you, something that’s personally relevant to you. If it doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not gonna do a good job with it.

You can read the entire interview on the Mashable site. Jer’s remarks reminded me of the words of Jiro Ono in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, currently on Netflix.

Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work.

I’m so grateful that my career turned toward business intelligence nearly ten years ago. Even when my career stresses me out, it’s a profession that I’ve fallen in love with. I hope you’ll read the Jer Thorp interview. And watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, even if you hate sushi.

Links

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this web site above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Also, some of the books I review were received as review copies and I’ve given my best effort to accurately disclose that information as part of the review. I am disclosing this information in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Are You Better Off?

Are SAP BusinessObjects customers better off than they were four years ago?

It’s election season in the United States.  Thousands of red, white, and blue balloons have dropped from the ceilings of the recently concluded Republican and Democratic conventions.  Now it’s time for the final sprint of campaign speeches, baby kissing, debates, and (sigh) incessant negative campaign ads before the November 6, 2012 election.

This week, hundreds of SAP BusinessObjects professionals will gather at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Florida for our own sort of political convention – the annual ASUG SAP BusinessObjects User Conference.  It’s been four years since SAP acquired Business Objects on January 22, 2008 and the question many attendees will be asking themselves is this one:

Are you better off than you were four years ago?

It’s certainly not an easy question.

The relationship between SAP and many of its traditional BusinessObjects customers is “it’s complicated”.  It got off to a rocky start with a clumsy transition to SAP support, layoffs in the BusinessObjects sales and support teams, the dismantling of the Business Intelligence University, and a lengthy development cycle for SAP’s flagship business intelligence offering— SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0.

Many of these customers have been sitting on the sidelines of the 4.0 upgrade with concerns over product stability, support for legacy technologies such as Desktop Intelligence, a decline in the quality of education materials, and the general perception that most of the exciting features on the 4.0 platform are exclusively for SAP’s traditional ERP customers.  Customers have also been checking out offerings from SAP’s smaller and nimbler business intelligence rivals.  SAP seems to be hedging its bets by continuing to update the XI 3.1 platform for new features such as mobility, but many innovations require a brave leap to 4.0.

There’s plenty to like in the BI 4.0 suite. And there’s plenty of upside in the SAP acquisition, having a product owner with deep pockets to invest in technologies like mobile analytics and SAP HANA (read Greg Myers’ upbeat assessment, The World Is Changing).  On Tuesday afternoon, I’ll be part of a panel discussion with SAP Mentors and Diversified Semantic Layer hosts Greg Myers, Jamie Oswald and Eric Vallo entitled “SAP BusinessObjects BI4: How to Make the Magic Happen“.  We’re looking forward to answering customer questions and hearing their concerns.

Follow hashtag #SBOUC on Twitter to follow developments from the conference.

The slogan on the conference PowerPoint templates is “Business Intelligence for a Passionate Community,” which is no understatement.  I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, signing copies of the new SAP BusinessObjects Web Intelligence 4.0 book from SAP Press, participating in the Developer Wars with my fellow SAP Press authors (Jim Brogden, Gabe Orthous, and Heather Sinkwitz), presenting two breakout sessions, and hanging out in EV Technologies‘ booth 102 with my awesome coworkers. It’s going to be a busy and exciting week.

But just like American voters, attendees at the ASUG SAP BusinessObjects User Conference will have the question “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” echoing in their minds as they hear the keynotes, attend breakout sessions, investigate hands-on demos, and wander through the partner showcase.  Whether it’s audibly spoken, it is the question that many customers will be asking.

And I hope SAP tackles the question head-on.

Is your business intelligence program better off than it was four years ago?  Continue the conversation in the comments section.

BusinessObjects Expert BI 2012

It’s time for SAP Insider BI 2012.

Today, I’m heading to the BusinessObjects Expert BI2012 conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s my first WIS Publishing conference and I’m presenting four breakout sessions on topics ranging from SAP BusinessObjects security, security in the new UNX semantic layer, Explorer 4.0, and user adoption (see details in a related post).  The conference will feature keynotes from SAP executives Steve Lucas and Timo Elliott. I’m hoping to hear the latest details about SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3 which will be going into ramp-up next month. I’m also looking forward to catching up with old friends and making new ones.

Be sure to follow hashtag #BI2012 on Twitter to get the latest updates from the conference.

Agile Analytics

If your business intelligence team has discussed “going agile”, this book can give you practical information to help you get there.

A lot of software development projects fail, and business intelligence and data warehousing projects can fail spectacularly. In the world of software development, the Agile movement has created some practices aimed at speeding up customer delivery and reducing failures. Author Ken Collier explains how to harness Agile techniques in a business intelligence/data warehousing environment in his book Agile Analytics: A Value-Driven Approach to Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing.

The book is organized into two sections, management methods and technical methods. Most of the technical methods focus on data modeling and data integration (often referred to as Extract, Transform, and Load, or ETL). While these areas are critical to a successful business intelligence system, my role is most often focused on the presentation layer or BI toolset (such as SAP BusinessObjects). So I personally gravitated toward the first half of the book, management methods.

An Agile DW/BI team is made up of more than just developers. It includes the customer (user) community, who provide requirements; the business stakeholder community, who are monitoring the impact of the BI system on business improvements; and the technical community, who develop, deploy and support the DW/BI system.

Defined in this way, one of the immediate challenges an organization faces in moving toward agility is that it is not an IT-only exercise. Although BI teams can certainly self-organize and practice agility, those efforts will only go so far without support from management and the user community.

Ken says more than once that the whole point of agile is to “be agile”, not just to “do agile”. Unfortunately, “agile” can be overused as the latest management buzzword to dress up “hacking” or “unrealistic deadlines”. I was actually surprised to read that agile may not improve delivery times. In the short term, delivery times may increase. But the payoff for agility is projects that more quickly respond to changing requirements and users that receive smaller functional deliveries instead of the “big bang” of the waterfall project death march.

While the book is a well-written and easy to read, I found it necessary to read slowly, chapter by chapter, and reflect on what I had read.  The book would easily lend itself to a weekly BI book club, where technicians, users, and management meet weekly to discuss the book one chapter at a time.

It’s refreshing to see that business intelligence and analytics professionals can adopt practices typically associated with Java, Ruby, and Objective-C developers. If your business intelligence team has discussed “going agile”, this book can give you practical information to help you get there.  Definitely recommended reading.

UPDATE: You may also enjoy reading Agile Analytics and the SAP Information Design Tool – An Introduction by Stuart Wallace. (added May 11, 2012)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”