And, more than that, I think it points a way to the future of dashboards as we use them in our businesses.
Don’t let them gather virtual dust – sharing them is a lot easier than you think!
As we approach the end of February it seems like 2015 could be the year where the backlash starts against Big Data. I’ve seen numerous articles this year. including this one from InformationWeek, this one from ZDNet and this one from Quartz – ouch!, which paint a less rosy picture of the value of Big Data and, in fact, Big Data in general.
Is it all it is hyped up to be?
It’s that time of year again where the stars put on their nicest frocks and cross their fingers that they’ll bag the ultimate award – an Oscar. It’s the premier award ceremony and it’s watched by millions worldwide.
But what’s it got to do with business intelligence dashboards?
Data Discovery has been great for the analysts in our organizations and has revolutionized the way they access, interact, and interpret data. However, I’ve always been more interested in serving the needs of the non-analysts.
Just over 11 years ago, on 10th July at FlashForward 2003, SAP Dashboards, aka Xcelsius, first hit the BI market (see this and other historical facts about Xcelsius here). It was a standalone desktop tool which allowed pretty much anyone to create amazing interactive dashboards on top of data in Excel and was one of the most innovative software products of its time.
In later versions, particularly after it was acquired by Business Objects, it gained the ability to connect to enterprise data sources, but it was what it did for standalone Excel users which was the source of its initial success.
During the past 10 years dashboards have evolved as business-users have become more sophisticated in their needs. We’ve witnessed a trend away from old-fashioned static at-a-glance dashboards towards interactive dashboards that are really more like BI applications. Users want answers to their immediate and follow-up questions and they want that information now. They want it through an intuitive, no-training-required interface and interactive dashboards do a great job of meeting this requirement.
So you could be excused for thinking that wall-mounted dashboards are a little old-fashioned and not relevant in today’s business world – after all they are up on the wall and they are hardly interactive. Well, not quite…
As someone who has previously written (here and here) about how technology labels often don’t help us, you might think it a little odd to find me writing a post comparing one label (BI Apps) with another (self-service BI), but bear with me.
I came across an article recently written by a product marketing chap from Spotfire, which draws an interesting analogy between doctors needing patient information and corporate users of BI.
The author asks us to imagine a scenario where doctors are not allowed to access data directly, but instead have to go and ask non-medical, data-specialists for the information, sometimes waiting hours or days for the answers. Clearly, this is supposed to be a parody on the way BI works in some organizations and equally clearly this would be a ludicrous way to run a hospital.
After analysing the world of the doctor and the corporate BI user, the article assertively concludes: “No one would think a doctor could be effective without access to information about his patients. Likewise, every business should empower its employees with the self-service information they need to prosper.”*
Interestingly, a quick Google for a definition of self-service BI comes up with:
“Self-service business intelligence is an approach … that enables business users to access and work with corporate information without the IT department’s involvement (except, of course, to set up the data warehouse and data marts underpinning the BI system and deploy the self-service query and reporting tools)”
So, it turns out we are being asked to imagine doctors using an ad-hoc query system directly onto the hospital data warehouse to get patient information. I think I prefer the initial scenario where they had to ask data experts to access this information.
The truth of the matter is this situation is played out many times every day in hospitals around the world, where doctors use patient information systems (or PIMs as they are known) to give them streamlined access to the data they need to do their jobs. These systems allow them to get in, get what they need, get out and get on as quickly as possible; they select a patient and are immediately rewarded with all the relevant information they need without further thought.
Your operational business people (who are in the majority in all organizations) are just the same, they need easy-to-use, no-training-required interfaces to the data they need to do their jobs. These are what I call BI Apps and I am certain that they are the next evolution of dashboards (see why here and here).
Finally, maybe I am being unfair on the chap from Spotfire, perhaps when he said self-service BI he actually had BI Apps in mind. If so, then it just goes back to the point that labels often just serve to confuse!
*this is a classic marketing “bait and switch” but more of that another day
In a great post last year, Timo Elliott commented on the debate around the question:
‘What is the difference between “Business Intelligence” and “Business Analytics”?’
And, his typically pithy answer was; “everyone has an opinion, but nobody knows, and you shouldn’t care”.
I would wholeheartedly agree, and in fact, I would go one step further and say, it is a daft, waste-of-time, irrelevant question.
Of course, we need labels which help guide us, after all I don’t want to go to a BI conference to find out it is about stamp collecting. But academic debates about the meaning and definition of anything other than the most general labels are pointless and damaging. Who cares if it is “intelligence” or “analytics” or whether it is a “datamart” or a “datawarehouse”, the real question is “will it help our business?”
The main reason that these questions are damaging (beyond the time wasted thinking about them) is that they act as a constraint on what is possible.
A good example of this is with dashboards. There are those who would argue that a dashboard should provide information at a glance and should not be used for interacting with data, with (IMO misguided) references to car dashboards to back this up.
This flies in the face of pretty much every real world “dashboard” I have ever seen, where the ability to navigate around the data to some extent is almost always a basic requirement. In fact, the more I think about it, the more “Interactive BI App” seems to better describe what people really want when they say they are looking for a dashboard. (I know, that feels like just another definition but hopefully is it general and descriptive enough not to add to the problem).
This has an interesting echo of the much talked about “consumerisation of IT”. The consumer world (particularly where mobile is concerned) has been transformed by “apps” in the past few years and I think that in BI we could do a lot worse than wonder how we could replicate some of this success in the business world.
So, next time you see a dashboard requirement, ask yourself how it might be delivered in the spirit of an iPad app:
Engaging, specific, no training required, valuable to the end-user – not a bad place to start !
If I were to make a BI prediction about 2012 it would be that this might be the year we see the rise of the BI App (and yes they will be available on mobile as well as the desktop).
Over the past week or so there has been a flurry of on-line activity following two blog posts by Steve Lucas (EVP Business Analytics, Database & Technology at SAP):
Before these posts, some people had fears for the future for Xcelsius, but these fears seemed to have been calmed by Steve’s commitment to an HTML5 version of Xcelsius later this year.
In his reasoning, I think Steve overstates the death of Flash, but nonetheless I believe he is completely right in outlining the intended new direction of HTML5 for Xcelsius. On top of this, I believe that the time between now and an HTML5 version of Xcelsius and also the time before we see feature parity between Flash and HTML5 both give a perfect opportunity for SAP solution partners to play their part in ensuring a long an healthy future for Xcelsius (on mobile and on the desktop).
Flash vs HTML5
In my post Xcelsius and Flash – Plus ça change … written at the time when Adobe made their mobile Flash announcement, I pointed out that whilst they had retreated from Flash plugins for the mobile browser, they were actually increasing their focus on Flash (in the guise of AIR) for cross-platform mobile app development. In fact, I would argue that Flash/Flex/AIR is currently the only cross-platform development/design capability which could come close to replicating what is possible with the Xcelsius designer today on a mobile device (and, that is a key driver behind our FlexWIS product, but that is a story for another day).
Currently, HTML5 does not really come close. There are many toolkits out there for HTML5 development, but the whole area is really still in the category of emerging technology. As an example, scan through this post on PhoneGap / Sencha Touch, it is from 8 months ago but I am pretty sure it is still representative of the state of play today. Couple that with the patchy support for the HTML5 spec in currently deployed browsers and you realize that it is still early days and there is some way to go before HTML5 has the tools and supporting infrastructure to become a mainstream technology for the types of BI applications which people typically use Xcelsius to build.
If anyone has recreated a non-trivial, Xcelsius-style model in HTML5/JS then I would love to see it and I would be happy to change my mind. In a world where many Xcelsius dashboards struggle with scalability and performance inside the Flash runtime, the HTML5/JS environment is unlikely to cut it for the time being.
HTML5 – the right choice for SAP
So, why do I say Steve has made the right choice in promising a version of Xcelsius with HTML5 output? Because, just as in the Wayne Gretsky quote, it is “where the puck is going to be”. Despite the current state of play, HTML5 is a near certain bet for the future.
There is a growing head of steam around HTML5 and the technology will get better and better. By the time the first HTML5 version of Xcelsius appears in beta things will have moved on, and, in the years to come, HTML5 is pretty much guaranteed to be a robust enough environment, supported by the mature development/design tooling, to make it viable.
So, technology is moving on, and for Xcelsius a re-architecture is required – this is hardly unknown in technology circles and as Dallas Marks points out on his blog this is very reminiscent of the DeskI to WebI transition, with which long-standing BusinessObjects customers are very familiar.
The role of partners
One thing which gives Steve and his team a little breathing space is a great piece of foresight from a few years ago. The introduction of the Xcelsius SDK and the work SAP has done to foster a partner ecosystem means there is much more to the product than what comes out of the box. Partner solutions extend the product in a number of areas and more importantly will continue to drive the product forward even as SAP get to work on their HTML5 re-architecture.
This is something which we at Antivia are happy to be able to do. Today, our XWIS product answers the five most commonly requested additions to Xcelsius, namely:
- Easier data management
- Greater performance and scalability
- iPad delivery
- End user ad-hoc analysis
And, we are already planning our next version, which will add more capability and innovation to the existing Xcelsius.
We also fully intend to be part of things going forward, so as the HTML5 version of Xcelsius emerges and evolves, Antivia will add our unique value into this world, too.
A good example of this is our XWIS Anywhere for iPad product. We architected it in such a way that whilst it can deliver all existing Xcelsius dashboards onto an iPad, it is also “HTML5-ready”, so when the new wave of models are possible it will be able to seamlessly display these as well.
For more details join our XWIS Anywhere Webinar on the 26th January 2012 (registration required)
The road ahead
As a current Xcelsius customer, far from having “backed the wrong horse” as one commentator put it, medium to long term innovation from SAP, and immediate capabilities and innovation from partners means you can have your cake and eat it
Which is just as well, because Xcelsius today is the only BI tool available which makes it quick and easy to create the type of Interactive BI Apps which users really want when they ask for dashboards, but that, too, is another story.