Tuesday, July 31

2007 leader for BI

This year the Gartner's BI Excellence award goes to a Police Department. BI for geospatial analysis of crime trends, visualization, and statistical analysis.

And the Brain Food Blogger on Intelligent Weblog makes a good point about considering other quadrants aside from the BI Platform quadrant, including Corporate Performance Management and integration.

I don't want to keep you in suspense any longer (if the picture didn't give it away already). The Gartner 2007 BI Platforms magic quadrant courtesy of Business Objects. One look at the quadrant and you'll understand why BO is being generous.

Wake up call for Air Canada

How many times do you need to hear something before it sinks in and you take action. When people ask for it - respond. Air Canada did, partially. As a decentralized organization using Excel spreadsheets for reporting, you can imagine how effective they were back in 2002. However their initial challenge wasn't building a BI centre of excellence, envisioning a one shared truth, or a well-thought-out technical architecture.

It was making BI easy and useful for the novice user (rather than just the power-users).

Briony Smith wrote an article in IT World Canada about Air Canada using IBI WebFocus because of the cheaper price point, high usability, and visualization tools.

But this is not about tools. Less than 20% of people in an organization use BI. Why could that be. Take away the bad implementations, insufficient toolset functionality, and untrained developers & project mgrs. What you're left with is approach and understanding the business problem.

Briony's article speaks of business intelligence competency centres as a way to bring together IT and business people to "break down the walls". Air Canada resisted this centralized approach (and I think missing out on improved collaboration and communication).

So many times have I seen projects boil down to technology, architecture and design. Important yes. Technologist focused yes. Incomplete picture yes.

The C-level execs are taking back control of IT decisions. You can see this with more and more IT professionals being left out of the decision-making loop. This makes delivering successful BI projects a challenge, no? Creating a competency centre (i.e. committee) in and of itself doesn't make a success.

IT professionals are left out of decisions because the needs of the business are not being met from IT projects. Having IT at a decision-making meeting is perceived as having little value. Knowing architecture, dimensions and toolsets is not big value to the final decision.

So here are 3.5 ways to add value and get invited back into that meeting:

    1. Be more than just technologists. I'm not saying go out and get an MBA, but at least speak their language. Save the tech talk for your friends. Slowly changing dimensions really don't matter.

    2. Provide value by meeting business people's needs. BI is for the business, first and foremost. Understand their business problems from their perspective - not the vendors.

    3. Solve their business problems with an easy to use result. They shouldn't need the same toolset training as you have to extract the results they need.

    3.5. Make decisions based on what's best for the organization and employees. The vendor your friend works for is probably not the best choice.

As a side note, Westjet (Air Canada's main competitor for readers outside of Canada) has a large BI centre and also moved away from a plethora of Excel spreadsheets. The approach Westjet took was taking the BI technologists around to watch employees interact with customers and do their jobs with Excel. Hands-on requirements gathering.

Tuesday, July 10

10 Questions with Aaron Burnett

Software as a Service (SaaS) is a serious strategy and business model for software leaders like Sales Force.com and Sharp Analytics. Saas for business intelligence is expanding and breaking traditional assumptions about the industry.

SaaS means.... You don't need hardware. No need to install software. Much better ROI and less up front costs.

Now take this one step further by removing the intensive effort of building a traditional ETL layer – the layer that moves and translates information from your systems to a data warehouse.

Now what if you could accomplish SaaS for BI without that ETL layer?

When I came across Seatab Software, I was skeptical. However, their unique, innovative approach may dramatically change the way business intelligence is delivered for organizations and employees.

I spoke with Aaron Burnett, VP of Marketing for SeaTab, one morning about what they are doing that is breaking our traditional thinking about BI.

  1. Question: Good morning Aaron. Let’s start with what makes you and SeaTab passionate about BI? Tell us how SeaTab got its start.

    Answer: From its founding in 1998, SeaTab Software has been dedicated to provided SaaS business intelligence solutions. The company’s founder (Ching Wan) spent years leading deployments of massive data warehouses and complex BI solutions as a Data Warehouse Practice Lead for Cambridge Technology Partners. Through his experience, it became clear to Ching that then-available data warehouse and BI solutions were failing many of the customers who needed them. Too often, customers spent millions of dollars and months or even years of work, only to find that the inflexibility of the solution they deployed precluded the analysis they needed, relegated BI to the hands of a few “power users” and wedded them to large internal support costs or expensive and ongoing professional services fees.

    Ching’s realization that, “there is a better way” marked the genesis of SeaTab and our SaaS business intelligence solutions. Our mission, then and today, is around providing every end user who needs it with the full power of business intelligence and enabling these users to create the custom/personalized BI environment that best suits their needs – all without requiring extensive IT support. We’re also dedicated to providing solutions that can be rapidly deployed (we deploy in 30 days on average) and preserve ongoing operational flexibility (additional data sources, changes in underlying business operations, etc). Again, the focus here is to provide these capabilities without requiring extensive IT support or outside professional services.

    The more than 12,000 companies using our solutions gives some indication of our success at delivering on our mission.

  2. Question: You mentioned SeaTab is being a "quiet success.” What did you mean by this?

    Answer: One of the amazing things about SeaTab is that, until October of 2006, the company had no formal marketing function. Our customers are consistently passionate about the value our BI solutions have provided and created a great, informal network of SeaTab “evangelists.” As a result, new customers came to us almost exclusively through word-of-mouth.

    In the last year, SeaTab has experienced significant growth, with staff expanding from eight to 25 employees and sales increasing more than four-fold so far. In addition, we obviously now have a formal marketing function!

  3. Question: Word of mouth can be quite effective marketing. So what is behind the dramatic difference with SeaTab’s approach, no ETL or dimensional models?

    Answer: In the main, dimensional models were created to overcome the inability of relational databases to support analytical queries. We knew from the start that a powerful SaaS BI solution couldn’t be built on a relational database. And by not relying on a relational database, we also don’t have to create and rely on dimensional models (cubes). As I know you understand, this has opened tremendous avenues of both operational and analytical freedom—for our customers and for us.

    In a similar fashion, formal ETL tools and processes are required to support the physical data structures inherent in the relational database/dimensional model world. Again, we don’t employ physical data structures. We use logical modeling instead. Therefore, no physical data structures and no formal ETL. That’s not to say that we don’t have to model the data at all, we do. But we do it only once (when we first deploy) and we work with data in its original, “denormalized” structure.

    By the way, we also deliver query response times that are typically much faster than those delivered by conventional BI solutions. That’s also helped our word-of-mouth marketing!

  4. Question: I have found that BI isn't always pervasive throughout an organization. The information and tools are used by a small percentage of employees. You're trying to change this?

    Answer: SeaTab’s technology puts the full power of BI in the hands of every user. This means every user has the ability to create custom reports, scorecards, KPI’s, dashboards and even custom calculations without requiring IT involvement. Part of the reason we can do this gets back to the data modeling approach I described in answer to your previous question. Because we store all customer data in a single, unified table and don’t have to build subject area cubes or adhere to dimensional models, we can easily provide end-users with the kind of analytical freedom such end-user access and control necessitates.

    Some of this also has to do with ease of use. Our user interface is intuitive and requires very little training. In fact, training typically requires fewer than 30 minutes, and in many instances is accomplished virtually via WebEx or a recorded training session.

    We’re typically deployed both broadly and deeply within our customer organizations. For example, Car Toys, a leading specialty retailer of mobile electronics and wireless services has more than 1,200 users ranging from the CFO and CEO (who stays logged in all day) to hundreds of seasonal retail employees who use PivotLink OnDemand as an integral part of the company’s ordering and provisioning processes.

  5. Question: Let’s talk about companies who have benefited from your approach and PivotLink OnDemand. Car Toys CIO, Tom Lockwood, said, "[SeaTab was] the best and most important IT investment Car Toys ever made." Care to explain Tom’s quote?

    Answer: Sure. Our deployment with Car Toys is a great example of the kind of operational flexibility I referred to earlier.

    In addition to 50 company-owned retail locations, Car Toys operates more than 350 kiosks selling wireless services within major retail locations in the U.S. Maintaining onsite inventory levels for all of these locations is a monumental task. To address this need, we integrated PivotLink OnDemand with Car Toys’ ERP system. Now PivotLink OnDemand continuously monitors sales activity and inventory levels, automatically triggering orders to replenish inventory at any of the company’s 400 retail locations.

    Lockwood (Car Toys’ CIO) says the following, “Without this system, it would take an army to calculate and manage our inventory orders. Now we're automatically generating thousands of purchase orders every week instead of undertaking this monumental task manually."

  6. Question: Talking about ROI, CIO’s and companies building BI systems want to know the TCO and ROI. Can the PivotLink tool show decent Total Cost of Ownership and Return on Investment numbers?

    Answer: Actually, our TCO and ROI numbers are pretty stunning. I’ll give you two examples, the first from an ROI-driven study of one of our customers that IDC conducted and the second from facts another of our customers has provided to a number of interested reporters.

    EXAMPLE #1: SeaTab provides enterprise-wide business intelligence for Zones, Inc., $600 million/year, publicly traded, multi-channel retailer of more than 150,000 name-brand information technology products. More than 400 of Zones’ 650 total employees use PivotLink OnDemand on a daily basis – from CEO to customer care representative. More than the three-plus years since our deployment, these employees collectively have created more than 4,700 custom reports. And yet, Zones estimates their total internal support cost for PivotLink OnDemand at $25K (20 percent of one IT staff member’s time). In addition, IDC documented a payback period of just 42 days on their purchase of PivotLink OnDemand and found a 50 percent increase in sales productivity.

    EXAMPLE #2: REI is a billion dollar retailer as the leading provider of quality outdoor gear. We provide REI with business intelligence solutions including merchandising, inventory management and sales. REI’s own internal assessment of the ROI PivotLink OnDemand brings includes:
    • 9 percent increase in topline sales

    • 1.6 percent increase in profit

    • 2 percent increase of in-stock performance

  7. Question: With your approach and your tool, PivotLink, can you really keep up with the on-going changes within a business and the volumes of information an organization captures?

    Answer: Absolutely. Ongoing operational flexibility and an ability to rapidly integrate and accommodate changes in business operations are strengths in our solution. Because we don’t have to build physical data structures (data cubes), we also don’t have to tear down those structures when business operations change or when new data sources need to be integrated. Such events are trivial for us.

  8. Question: Now for a competitor question. If you had to pick the top 2 items of what sets you apart from the competition, what would those be?

    Answer: I would have to say,
    1. End-user access and control.

    2. Powerful BI performance at an unexpectedly low price. We provide price performance economics that no one in the marketplace can match.

  9. Question: And now for the future vision of SeaTab. Where do you see yourselves going in the market, and what is your biggest hurdle?

    Answer: We see ourselves as being the dominant SaaS player for the mid-market. Our biggest hurdle is overcoming the preconceived notions of how difficult and expensive BI implementations are.

  10. Question: It was excellent to talk with you Aaron and hearing about your innovative approach to BI. To wrap this up, you mentioned you would have articles and stories for our readers. Can you send me links about SeaTab you want to share?

    Answer: Thank you as well Tom. It was also good to meet with you.

    SeaTab Web site:

    IDC Report:
    Link to an IDC report that outlines how multi-channel retailer Zones, Inc. (http://www.zones.com/site/home/index.html), achieved a 50 percent increase in sales productivity and ROI of 1,065 percent by implementing SeaTab Software's PivotLink SaaS (Software as a Service) Business Intelligence solution.http://www.seatab.com/dnn/Default.aspx?tabid=140

    News Articles:
    Multi-channel Merchant:
    Resource Guide: Business Intelligence Solutions
    CRM Buyer:
    Web Services on Steroids

    STORES Magazine:
    Smooth Sailing; Anchor Blue unlocks its database with help from SeaTab Software