When Will BI Head Downstream?

Over the past year, the business intelligence (BI) landscape has transformed drastically. Formerly, this market was comprised of a vast collection of solution providers, but it has evolved to just four major players — IBM, SAP, Oracle and Microsoft.

These BI titans have expanded through acquisition, snatching up the BI solutions provided by Cognos, Business Objects, Hyperion and ProClarity, while also growing organically, all in an attempt to increase their footprint in the enterprise applications space.

Wrong Direction for SMBs

The rapid expansion of these vendors has led them to focus on integrating platforms rather than creating new tools, which has resulted in complex and expensive solutions and stagnant innovation.

This shift has not proven problematic for large enterprises that possess the required resources to support these BI solutions, as they have large IT departments full of technology-savvy employees, not to mention sizable budgets to invest in the adoption of these expensive solutions. Furthermore, these enterprises will, in fact, benefit from the end-to-end BI packages that result from the BI powerhouses’ integrated offerings and homogeneous platforms.

However, what happens when small or medium-sized businesses look for BI solutions? SMBs usually do not have the same available resources to dedicate to aggregating and analyzing data.

Due to complexity and cost, small businesses cannot afford to support these complete, end-to-end packages. In fact, many SMBs do not even need all the functionalities of these packages, but they cannot afford to sacrifice the benefits of a BI solution altogether, namely, the ability to manage and leverage their information assets.

Needs Unmet

Organizations face the challenge of increasing loads of data, and traditional spreadsheet reports are not providing the quick and easy information access that is required for them to complete their job effectively. The majority of organizations have a variety of software applications that constitute their data infrastructure, and this data is often locked within the silos of these independent applications, making it difficult to report on combined data and have a holistic view of the business.

Many large enterprises have invested in developing data extraction and data warehouses to collect data from their disparate sources, but small businesses often cannot afford to overcome this technology hurdle.

For example, a large enterprise may use Oracle E-Business or SAP as its enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, Siebel as its customer relationship management (CRM) solution, and various custom-built applications to satisfy their unique needs.

Off the Shelf

On the other hand, a small organization may have QuickBooks to manage its finances, Salesforce as its CRM and a host of Excel spreadsheets to meet their own, distinct needs. For these SMBs, seamlessly accessing data from all these data sources is the crux of the BI data challenge.

Currently, of the big four vendors, Microsoft is the closest to providing a solution to overcome this obstacle. Microsoft Excel has become the most pervasive BI tool to address the needs of small businesses.

Microsoft has wisely leveraged Excel as the front-end to deliver its extensive BI offerings, by tying it to the more sophisticated stack of BI technologies it has acquired and developed.

Despite this progress, Microsoft has not yet mastered the solution, opening the window of opportunity for innovation outside the walls of the big four BI vendors to fill the void created by the recent consolidation.

Niche BI vendors are taking the reins on providing new tools, offering cost-effective and user-friendly tools to help small businesses leverage their information assets. Simultaneously, application providers such as QuickBooks and Salesforce, which are heavily relied upon by small businesses, are making their data easier to access; outside vendors can now create pre-built data connectors to these applications, a capability that ultimately enhances the opportunity for niche BI vendors to provide innovative, effective solutions for small businesses.

BI for the Masses

For example, data visualization tools, such as dashboards, provide an inexpensive and easy-to-use solution that aggregates and analyzes data. This type of niche tool provides a visual representation of data, or graphical user interface (GUI).

The visual representation is customizable to fit the needs of the variety of workers it serves. All users — those with advanced analytic roles, to those collecting and entering the data — can access and understand the information that is pertinent to them, thus, bringing BI to the masses.

This type of niche BI offering exhibits the innovation sparked by the BI market consolidation.

No Clear Leader

No one can deny that the BI landscape is maturing and expanding, but there is yet to be any one solution to deliver on the same scale as did for CRM, or Intuit for business finances; in short, none of the BI vendors have yet ignited a mass adoption at all the levels of the corporation.

However, the niche BI vendors have seized this opportunity to innovate and provide cost-effective and user-friendly solutions.

While many fear the stagnant innovation within the “BI powerhouses,” they need not worry, as these innovative providers are looking to meet the needs of SMBs and bring BI to every business and each employee.

Shadan Malik is president and CEO of iDashboards, a business intelligence dashboard software firm based in Troy, Mich. He holds two patents in the area of data visualization for dashboards, and he authored the first book on dashboard best practices, Enterprise Dashboard: Design and Best Practices for IT.

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