»Me, myself and BI«

Bissantz ponders


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Business Intelligence 2.0

Sander You are currently working on a book that supports an unusual point of view. The manuscript says, for example, that Business Intelligence is often overrated and that you wish for a bit more modesty in the industry. Those are harsh words for a BI vendor!

Bissantz My book is primarily directed towards managers and I don’t think that my words will surprise them. In fact, I am partially writing in an act of self-defense. My book simply confirms things that managers have already been questioning for some period of time. Many have been tolerating the situation silently but I offer a new take on it that will be rewarding for the future.

Sander Could you give an example?

Bissantz The self-made claims of Business Intelligence are just not realistic. The hype over data mining a few years back is a perfect example. What follows is unnecessary disappointment.

Sander You mean that data mining didn’t work? But there are so many good examples, such as the book recommendations on Amazon…

Bissantz Of course, there are some success stories. But the Amazon example only counts as data mining in the broadest sense of the term. Most companies are better off not to expect to many surprises in their old data. I cringe when I hear modern-day fairy tales such as the one about Wal-Mart …

Sander … where young men buy beer and diapers on Friday evenings?

Bissantz Wal-Mart allegedly earned millions with this discovery. The story is good, but only as fiction and not as fact. You can read about it on the Internet. It just follows the principle to never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Sander And so what is the modern fairy tale of business intelligence?

Bissantz Finding the right information at the right place at the right time.

Sander What is wrong with that?

Bissantz Managers are often criticized when they make decisions based on their instinct instead of their data. Of course, DeltaMaster can deliver an abundance of beneficial information to aid the decision-making process. But to suggest that Business Intelligence software can replace experience and intuition and that a quick look at a traffic light graphic will suffice to know exactly how to manage a company is absurd.

Sander So you basically want to revive a gut-feeling style of management?

Bissantz I wouldn’t use that word because it is not about feelings or emotions. We all make rational decisions in our sub-conscience. We just don’t realize it since we make them so quickly and regularly. We only run into problems when we have to justify them, because we try to reconstruct our reasoning on a conscience level. To save us the effort, we usually just call it a “gut feeling”.

Sander So managers don’t need data after all?

Bissantz In the sub-conscience level of decision-making we register all the data and facts that we have observed and stored in our minds. I am only concerned with the proper proportions. When we as software vendors shape Business Intelligence, we need to ask ourselves, how could entrepreneurs such as the Medicis, Fuggers and myriads of others successfully manage world empires without Business Intelligence?

Sander So what can Business Intelligence really offer?

Bissantz Business Intelligence has great potential but I doubt that any business can realize it with the tools that are currently in fashion. Information is now supposed to come across as sexy or sporty. Most dashboards today look as if you were sitting in a racing car!

Sander But isn’t that your own favorite metaphor?

Bissantz In a broad sense, yes. To ask yourself how you can design an information system based on the dashboard of an automobile is always appealing in a country that is as crazy about cars as Germany is. If that doesn’t work, most companies just settle for good copy. A speedometer is perfect to measure speed but is a sheer waste of space to illustrate only a single business measure.

Sander So what should an ideal management system look like?

Bissantz Not like a speedometer, that’s for sure! When you are driving a car, you don’t have much time to look at the dashboard controls. For managers, however, the exact opposite holds true. Someone driving a car only has a brief moment to gather all information. Managers need to have all relevant information summarized in detail on a single page which justifies intensive reflection. To do that, you need a very high level of information density.

Sander As much information as possible on single page? Wouldn’t that be overcrowded and difficult to read?

Bissantz That is a very common misconception among information designers. Look at the stock listings in a newspaper and then imagine how they would look in PowerPoint. The limited resolution of a projector would force the presenter to take that one page and chop it into many little tidbits of information. Unfortunately, people can only compare, evaluate and classify information when the relevant information is all within eyesight. If we aren’t too liberal with colors, borders and other distractions, we can maximize both information density and readability.

Sander You want to go back to paper? Isn’t it better that the days of endless green and white striped piles of reports are over?

Bissantz Paper offers a much better resolution than a computer screen. This allows us to explain more in less space. An ideal meeting, in my opinion, is one where each person has a ledger-sized piece of paper containing the relevant information in front of him. When a certain measure is being discussed, a person can either form his own opinion, go further down the page or just nod off. That’s why a typical PowerPoint presentation is such torture. Some complain that the presenter is going too fast, while others feel the presenter is too slow. The audience members are slaves of the medium.

Sander Is the projector turned off in your ideal meeting?

Bissantz I wouldn’t use a projector to show reports, because of the limited information density. Instead, I would show the system that generated the data and use it interactively to answer any questions that arise in the heat of discussion.

Sander But do companies hold meetings that way?

Bissantz Oh, yes. Interestingly enough, many companies are much more advanced in this sense than the public realizes. Another alternative is to pin a ledger-sized report onto the wall. Everyone can stand around it and mark his area of interest with a certain colored marker. Everyone is moving. Everyone is involved. Half of the people sitting in a darkened room during a PowerPoint presentation regularly fall asleep.

Sander You don’t appear to be a big fan of PowerPoint.

Bissantz PowerPoint is great with the right topic and the right speaker. But it leads most mortals to believe that they can convey a message if they have 10 slides with three bullet points a piece. I know CFOs that have banned PowerPoint as a medium for communicating numbers. People just read much more quickly than they can speak. If everyone has a printed report in front of him, they will learn much more substance in much less time. And if there is no report available, then there is probably no reason to hold a meeting anyway.

Sander How will Business Intelligence evolve in the years to come?

Bissantz I have observed that a new generation, call it Business Intelligence 2.0, is just beginning to develop – similar to the changes in the Internet summed together as Web 2.0. At the present, these changes resemble guerilla tactics, because they are taking place unbeknownst to the more established members in the industry.

Sander Guerilla tactics? That sounds like war! Is it so difficult for these ideas to penetrate?

Bissantz I would say it is more like a sporting event, something on the lines of David versus Goliath. On a one-to-one level it is relatively easy. Companies often ask us if we do dashboards, and if not, they don’t want to work with us. Then we send them a breakdown of their pros and cons – and suddenly the dashboards are history. On a market level, the story is different.

Sander How?

Bissantz Many vendors have invested obscene amounts of money in programming and marketing concepts that, in my opinion, lead in the wrong direction. Their only incentive to defend these concepts is that they have already invested so much money in these programs. That’s why it will take some time until other powers prevail.

Sander And which powers are they?
All experts that are not somehow associated with a company whose prime goal is to make as much profit as quickly as possible will agree with every word that I have just said. Just take a look at the online forum of Edward Tufte, the father of visualization. That is the unofficial hangout of the powers that will be.

The interview was moderated by Hans-Peter Sander.

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