Drilling down into analytics

For the most part, industry events are designed to expose delegates to a wide range of new innovations to help them to understand the ways in which current environments can be extended to embrace new technologies. Attendees arrive to gain first-hand exposure to new products, and leave with the ability to imagine their use, if no real understanding of how to integrate them within existing environments.

The Information Builders Summit is a completely different experience. At this event, the 1,300 attendees — many of whom have been coming to Summit for years or even decades — are very familiar with Information Builders’ core products. Certainly, they are interested in product enhancements, like the adapters that enable the WebFOCUS analytics platform to connect to new data sources. But Summit attendees are also looking to better understand how analytics can be used to extend their organizational ability to use data to deliver better management insight — and increasingly, to understand how analytics can be embedded seamlessly within business processes across the organization.

Information Builders' CEO Gerry Cohen addresses Summit 2014
Information Builders’ CEO Gerry Cohen addresses Summit 2014

Information Builders’ Summit 2014 kicked off with a presentation by Gerry Cohen — one of three company founders, and an established thought leader in the analytics community. Cohen began by introducing new capabilities delivered by Information Builders over the past twelve months: a cloud-based development sandbox (offering the ability to migrate code seamlessly to on-premise environments with ‘no work lost’), the integration of maps and mapping capabilities through an alliance with ESRI, and some of the 250 recent enhancements to WebFOCUS 8.0.08 (many of which appear to respond to individual customer requests). He quickly moved beyond the product discussion, though, to address major trends in analytics: the evolution from dashboards to portals, the impact of the “Industrial Internet” on data and analytics, and the emerging opportunity for information applications, or “info apps.”

The evolution from dashboards to portals provides a good example of how Information Builders works with its users to deploy capabilities required in the ‘here and now.’ Cohen noted that the interface to business intelligence (BI) systems has evolved from static dashboard systems, which he described as “very old-fashioned,” to dynamic portals that allow users to pick the objects that are important to them. At a surface level, this seems to represent a fairly straightforward shift. Under the covers of the software, it is more complex: for example, Cohen said that HTML5 “made all the old graphic systems obsolete” by embedding new functionality in the browser, meaning that analytics packages like WebFOCUS needed to evolve to take advantage of the new capabilities. This in turn has implications for Information Builders’ core code; Cohen conceded that while major releases may require substantial upgrades, it is Information Builders policy to provide backward capacity for all WebFOCUS features across minor release versions, enabling users to upgrade via a binary refresh rather than a more-painful new install — a design principle that company co-founder and senior vice-president Peter Mittelman described as “the hardest part” of delivering seamless performance upgrades to Information Builders users.

Cohen’s commentary on the Industrial Internet provided guidance on the ‘next big thing’ in analytics. While avoiding use of the more common phrase “Internet of Things” — which he dismissed as “sort of belittling” — Cohen highlighted some of the ways in which Internet-connected sensors and machines can change the ways in which analytics-based solutions contribute to success, enabling a new generation of “sense and respond” applications that accept a high volume of continuous inputs, parsing them for exceptions that require actions and then triggering a response, which could range from alert on a dashboard to automated machine adjustments.

Cohen then moved on to what he sees as the future of analytics — “self-service for everyone,” organized into levels for different types of users: InfoDiscovery for analysts trained in sophisticated use of advanced tools, InfoAssist to provide support for business users looking to support management decisions with data-driven insight, and InfoApps that distribute the benefit of analytics to “ordinary users” throughout the enterprise. The objective, Cohen said, is to enable performance improvement by combining “the engine” of current performance with “the headlights” that illuminate insights into future opportunities. In the analogy, the engine is used to reduce errors and uncertainty by infusing analytics into procedures, standards and controls, and is deployed via InfoApps and InfoAssist. The headlights enable organizations to gain insights, taking inputs from consumers, operational research and sentiment/social feedback and using InfoDiscovery to find patterns, correlations, exceptions and contradictions.

Research from Ventana illustrates key benefits of Big Data visualization
Research from Ventana illustrates key benefits of Big Data visualization

This approach to connecting current practice, near term opportunities and long-term vision was echoed through the balance of the Summit. Through the rest of the week-long event, users could select from amongst hundreds of technical sessions, analyst presentations and user case studies. The analyst sessions included most of the major research firms covering BI/analytics. Gartner’s presentation, delivered by Rita Sallam, referred to 2014 as a “tipping point for analytics.” Sallam observed that while confusion in the marketplace is acting as a “headwind to [Big Data] spending,” investments in the services and infrastructure needed to launch Big Data initiatives is growing, while half of new BI license spending will be driven by data discovery requirements. A Ventana Research presentation delivered tag-team style by CEO Mark Smith and business analytics research director Tony Cosentino distinguished between “business intelligence” (characterized by dashboards, reports and spreadsheets) as a mature market and “business analytics” (including predictable analytics and visualization) as an evolving discipline. Smith and Cosentino then delved into five business analytics ‘usage personas’ — information consumers, knowledge workers, designers, analysts and “data geeks” — looking at the characteristics and requirements of each group. Other analyst presentations covered issues like support for business agility, collaboration, and insights into future BI directions and ecosystem partnerships.

While the analysts added colour to the event’s commentary, the main focus was on best practices — via hands-on sessions, delivered through three parallel case study streams, and conveyed through the lunchtime and hallway conversations that occurred throughout Summit. A sampling of the firms making presentations includes:

  • Scotiabank discussed its use of Information Builders’ analytics technology to support its reporting requirements. Tatjana Papic, senior manager with Scotiabank, observed that developing a corporate strategy requiring technical integration and information sharing is much more difficult than responding to user requests on a standalone basis, but that this approach won’t work for Scotiabank, which needs to respond to a constantly-changing regulatory environment that demands current, consistent information. Scotiabank is very focused on data quality, and on the ability to reuse reporting code to meet multiple demands.
  • Cambridge Memorial Hospital uses Information Builders technology to support both internal management and regulatory reporting requirements. Mike Mayette has used WebFocus to build a data warehouse and an HR attendance dashboard for use by hospital management, and has created dashboards that connect funding with case management, enabling the hospital to supply required information to the Ontario government.
  • Gary Neff of Olive Media, an online advertising supplier representing major media brands in the Canadian market, uses WebFOCUS to support business processes connected with ad campaign sales. Analytics is used to track campaigns, to provide consistent and accurate reporting used to keep clients up to date with progress, and as a means of delivering important internal insight on issues as diverse as performance vs. budget and “what’s not happening” — a means of identifying ads that should be displayed but are not appearing.
  • Yellow Pages Group also uses WebFOCUS for media analysis, and as is the case with Torstar, for support of both internal and external reporting. In YPG’s case, the technology provides capabilities that are essential to helping the organization evolve from a print media company which published a comprehensive annual guide to an online digital media firm that needs to demonstrate value on an ongoing basis. IT Director Richard Langlois’ team is using Big Data — inputs from its own systems and from external sources — to build a calculator for clients, enabling advertisers to track the ROI of their campaigns.

Note: more detailed descriptions of WebFOCUS analytics user cases are found in the InsightaaS post “Six variations on the theme of analytics.”

Smiling Tom
Tom Farynowski, Titan Insurance

In addition to the formal presentations, there was a tremendous amount of informal discussion at the event in which long-time WebFOCUS users exchange ideas and experiences with their colleagues. These conversations are too numerous and diverse to categorize, but two examples provide an illustration of the kinds of guidance available to attendees. Tony Vecchio of University of North Carolina-Charlotte talked about how Information Builders-powered reporting is spreading through the university: “We have 20 developers outside of central ITS (Information and Technology Services) that can write their own ad hoc reports…and these people are responsible for providing WebFOCUS reporting solutions for hundreds of people in their departments,” he said, adding that “the 20 automate hundreds of [previously] manual reports…so the hundreds [of business users] can spend time on other tasks.” In another informal conversation, Tom Farynowski of Titan Insurance — who has attended “about 15″ Summits over the 30+ years that he’s been working with Information Builders software — shared his experience with using WebFOCUS to connect data from multiple sources into a single report: “I have one application that has over 50 metrics where the information is gathered from 15 input files,” he said, adding that with WebFOCUS, he is able to provide users with “an Excel File [that] is generated dynamically based on user criteria.” These kinds of conversations illustrated the benefit of a large event focused tightly on a specific subject: with common business needs and technology challenges, fellow delegates are the ideal resources for attendees looking to find hidden capabilities in WebFOCUS, or ways of extending the BI platform to address new business areas, or methods of extending analytics benefits to a wider community of users.

Information Builders itself is especially focused on the concept of extending analytics to the broad community of front-line employees within its user community. In an interview, Dr. Rado Kotorov, vice president of product marketing with Information Builders, discussed an “east coast, west coast” distinction in how data is managed and distributed, contrasting consumption of data by specialists and analysts with the info apps that reach across all users within an organization. The distinction became very meaningful when Kotorov overlaid workforce statistics on the two approaches. He stated that there are “20,000 statisticians in the labor force in the US, out of 130 million workers…there are 60,000 operational researchers, and there are about 2.5 million people who have ‘analyst’ in their title” — meaning that the chance of finding good statisticians, or data scientists, is remote. Kotorov noted that absent input from trained statisticians armed with sophisticated technology, the analysts tend to consider a limited number of variables, rather than entire data sets; this partial view leads to partial truths, which Kotorov referred to as the “flaw of averages.” His solution to the shortage of capable statisticians and to addressing the errors that can result from incomplete analysis is to embed analytics within information-rich products, rather than relying on specialists to deliver analytical reports to a limited number of senior managers. Kotorov sees this as being, at least to some extent, an “east coast vs. west coast” divide: “you go to Silicon Valley,” he says, “and everyone is trying to figure out how to build information applications,” citing examples like Uber. On the other hand, “you go on the East Coast, and the people in BI who hold the keys” to corporate data have now “submitted completely to the business — and all they do is get data extracts and push them to the business…IT on the east coast doesn’t treat IT as a product.” Information Builders is clearly aligned with the ‘west coast’ approach to productizing information-rich insights and democratizing the benefits of analytics.

Ultimately, it’s hard not to recognize the validity of Kotorov’s position, and to see the merit in Information Builder’s focus on info apps. As Jake Freivald, Information Builders’ vice president of marketing, said, “We win when we are able to get customers to think about the question ‘can you share all of your information with all of your users?’” Or to hone into a specific industry example, “Can you get all of your population health metrics out to all of your physicians, nurses and caregivers in order to improve population health management?” He made the point in the context of Information Builders’ sales and marketing process — but it is equally true of analytics as a discipline. Reporting is an important driver of analytics and Big Data technology, and management and regulatory insights are important outputs — but ultimately, the use of data to enhance workflows throughout an organization will connect the promise of analytics with the reality of more efficient operations.


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