Analytics have become the poster child for how IT empowers people, processes and production. As additional sources of data have emerged out of social networks, sensor systems and M2M communications, better reading of this information promises to deliver new business value, new services and even advanced solutions to key global challenges. But what constitutes ‘better reading’? Recently, a number of analytics solutions have surfaced in the market that are intent on empowering users to mine Big Data resources; however, the ability to deliver on several critical issues in data management separates the suppliers of data dashboards from the providers of actionable insight. How is data transformed to a usable resource? How can various data sets be integrated with each other and into organizational systems? What are the right questions to ask of the data? And finally, how does one create access to data in order that it supports decision-making for stakeholders across the organization? In confronting these challenges over long term experience in information management, Information Builders has evolved a technology platform and customer service standard that serves as a good example of the art of the possible, when analytics are informed by the real life data needs of users.
Founded in 1975, New York-based Information Builders was initially focused on the creation of information systems designed to address a growing backlog in IT. As company CMO, Michael Corcoran, explained, "we really looked at ourselves as an enabler of rapidly developed applications. We had an application development product that was in the form of a programming language, but what quickly became clear was that the product had a unique strength in production reporting... the earliest foundation of analytics." By the eighties, through expansion of the company’s technology to different computing platforms, data sources and types of organizations, focus shifted to delivering interactivity and decision support. And in the nineties to business intelligence, marked by greater interactivity and data visualization — "tools and technologies," Corcoran noted, "really dedicated to helping people make better decisions through interaction with the data and information on demand."
Today the company provides analytics, which Corcoran distinguishes from business intelligence by pointing to more interaction with data, better visualization, greater ability to address the information discovery needs of a broader community — and to a move away from querying historical, operational data and reactive, structured reporting towards forward looking, actionable analytics insight. "We have sets of tools which are constantly evolving, Corcoran added, "that allow people to see trends as they happen. It’s much more real time, and it’s much more predictive. We’re not only trying to track what happened, we’re trying to predict what will happen... And it’s much more alertive. The tools might identify some trends or some thresholds that we are reaching, and provide some ability to drill down and gain new insight into that."
A key activity that Corcoran expects will drive the analytics industry over the next year or so is the "definition of self service" — or, the ability for users across a range of organizational roles to obtain independent access to data. While the rare and majestic data scientist will continue to represent a strategic asset in business planning in many organizations, there is an increasing expectation that decision-making at all levels of the business be informed by analysis of quantitative resources. But how can the non-specialist query, analyze and report information in a way that is responsible, how can the busy IT department service this growing expectation? Information Builders has an app for that. According to Corcoran, over the past couple of decades, business intelligence providers have developed software systems requiring highly structured data warehousing with labour intensive information tagging and management of metadata, which effectively created bottlenecks in information delivery. But through greater automation of data search and discovery within and without the organization, Information Builders is removing complexity from the integration of new online data sources, such as GPS and location-based information from smartphones or other sensor technologies and social media.
While the role of IT in information management is changing — to responsibility for creation of the environment needed to support analytics, or to the deployment of analytics applications — the business user of today needs to be able to access information on their own, intuitively and in real time. To address this need, Information Builders has reached into its application development roots to build templated, customizable, context-sensitive apps that perform the data management and search function, while providing an easy to use interface that ensures proper query, scientific analysis and reporting. Corcoran explained, "We no longer have to go to this one person to answer all the hard questions. Their knowledge can be embedded into an application that is accessible 24x7, 365 days a year, and made available to employees, supply chain partners or customers." By enabling the analyst or developer to package up these customizable templates, Information Builders is bringing highly sophisticated technical activities like predictive modelling out of the backroom of the data science specialist and onto the mobile device of the business user — delivering dynamic dashboards, charts, maps that people can use immediately without advanced tools training or user manuals. "We are excited to be able to take all these levels of analytics and make them consumable through tools for the more advanced users, and through interactive apps that we call ‘Info Apps’ for the non-technical user," some of which are now being used by tens of millions of users.
A key value proposition for Information Builders is not so much new technical marvels in individual apps, but rather the company’s ability to leverage existing capabilities and continuously layer on expanded functionality through deployment of an integrated platform. WebFOCUS Intelligence serves as the platform for the embedding of data discovery, predictive analytics, social media analytics, enterprise search, and geographic location intelligence in a single dashboard, but it also acts as foundation for other company solutions. These include Information Builders’ iWay Integration, which consolidates data and offers real time process orchestration across database platforms and iWay Integrity, a solution that ensures data quality to offer a consistent and accurate view of the data, whatever the access point. According to Brian Joynt, VP and GM, Information Builders Canada, company messaging is very focused on the "three ‘I’s" — business Intelligence, Integration and Integrity (data quality and master data management). The incorporation of these backend functions are critical to problem solving for the customer that will deliver information quality and consistency. As example, Joynt described deployment of a cross-selling application for tracking sales info for Scotia Bank that involved integration of data across 26 different backend systems, as well as work on data quality, whole solution services that were essential to driving adoption of the application. Noting the importance of data consistency, Corcoran added, "When you give people different tools and options and ways to work with data, chances are they’ll come up with different answers to the same question more frequently. But when I am able to leverage all of these technologies together, I know that they are producing consistent information and looking at our data in the same way."
In the coming year, Information Builders is looking to expand its presence across Canada, into the western regions, Atlantic Canada and Quebec, and to move beyond strengths in the financial and government sectors into additional data-intensive verticals, such as healthcare, retail, and the power industries (utilities and oil and gas). As it does so, the company is looking to differentiate through high levels of customer service that have been empowered through thirty-nine years of operation as a private company. Information Builders has demonstrated its attention to customer needs in customization capabilities within its software platform, but also in the achievement of several customer service awards, notably, the 2013 Stevie Award from American Business Awards for exceptional customer service, and — ironically given the company’s mainframe heritage — simultaneous recognition from the Midsize Enterprise Summit West (and East) 2013 XCellence Awards for the best midmarket solution. In the company’s framework, customer service begins with the local organization, as it has found that customers most commonly cite interaction with Information Builders employees as the primary purchase decision maker. According to Corcoran, customers have noted Information Builders’ propensity to ask more questions about their business than do other vendors.
Another means for Information Builders to monitor customer needs is Focal Point, an online media forum with 7,500 participants that allows customers to interact with each other, share ideas on business challenges — and openly comment on the Information Builders solution set. In Canada, the local team is employing yet another tack, working on the creation of industry specific ‘collaboration sites’. As Joynt explained, "where we have penetration and multiple customers in a particular vertical, we are looking at creating the means for them to share content. So if they are creating a dashboard that would be relevant to another organization, how can we help them pool their resources to drive down their total cost of ownership?" The creation of community is a priority for Joynt’s team, which has doubled the user forums they run, a number that stands at approximately two in each of Canada’s major cities, as well as attendance at these. Organized around a thought leadership piece and a feedback mechanism, these forums also serve as an information resource, highlighting specific technology subjects or issues that may require additional educational support. The Canada group is providing this support in the form of webinars or drill down workshops, such as the data quality sessions that the company is now running across the country.
Joynt sees strong opportunity for the company’s growth in Canada, based on "an awakening to the value of information" on the part of business users who are not only gaining insight to improve their own operations or marketing, but who are developing interest in building new information based services that they can deliver to their own customers: "Three or four years ago, we had maybe ten to twenty percent of organizations asking ‘how do I monetize my data?’ Now probably half the customers that we talk to are looking at how they can drive this information back to customers — sometimes in the form of a chargeable service, or sometimes as a value add that they are using to drive customer loyalty." Interestingly, this awareness is growing most quickly within the smaller organization, which unlike the enterprise, is just now beginning to wrestle with data issues. This is emerging in the case of many SMBs, Joynt claimed, as these are feeling the need to improve online customer experience. The result is a much higher proportionate spend on analytics in this segment, which makes up a good part of the Canadian market. With sensitivity to the unique needs of Canada’s midmarket, which faces business challenges that are similar to those of the enterprise with fewer resources, Information Builders has designed programs such as staged adoption of its complete solution and flexible pricing models that should combine with templated analytics, and scale of the high touch customer service approach to drive interest in the company. The primary challenge, not surprisingly, is covering Canada’s vast geography, an issue that Joynt is hoping to resolve through work with partners that can offer subject matter expertise — or geographic presence.