Making Business Intelligence as Easy as Search

By Andreas Schmitz

Lothar Burow likes simplicity. As the head of business intelligence at the Bayer Group, he wants every employee – not just the controlling experts – to be able to perform their own analyses. And this makes him part of a growing trend.

Making Business Intelligence as Easy as Search

Really, it should work as easily as a mobile search function for a restaurant: You install the app – like one from Yelp – on your smartphone, activate geolocation services, and then, at the mere tap of a finger, you get the Italian, Greek, and Thai restaurants around the corner displayed with ratings.

If Lothar Burow (60) has his way, it won’t be long before business intelligence in companies – that is, the detailed analysis of business performance and results – works in a similar way. “Let’s take a look at the global financial crisis of 2009,” says the head of business intelligence at the Bayer Group, headquartered in Leverkusen, Germany. “Then, it was important to get information as fast as possible about how demand was developing in the regions.” And also about any possible signs of economic recovery and, for example, when it might be possible to end reduced working hours at the plants, he adds.

How to improve usability?

However, in Burow’s opinion, the commonly available front-end tools did not provide what was needed. Burow, a physicist who has been working in the business intelligence field for more than 15 years, more often than not encountered “a dry world of numbers and poor usability.”

So what should be done?

“Of course,” says Lothar Burow, head of business intelligence at Bayer, “iOS improved usability, but it works on PCs, too.”

Business intelligence requirements

Forrester analyst Boris Evelson recently outlined some important business intelligence trends in his blog. Three of them are: the best tool for each job instead of IT standards, do-it-yourself rather than get it delivered, and mobility as the BI mantra.

Everyone should be in a position to understand the pie charts and bar graphs on the screen and to create them themselves. The tool itself – be it software like SAP BusinessObjects Web Intelligence software and SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio, or tools from competitors Tableau Software or MicroStrategy – hardly matters to Burow. “Good usability, high performance, and availability,” are for him the three magic specifications for business intelligence at the Bayer Group. “It’s important for the complexity to disappear into the background,” he says.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily mean aiming to be an Apple clone. “Of course,” says Burow, “iOS improved usability, but it works on PCs, too.”

Business intelligence solution

Viewed in this light, iOS and its outstanding usability elevated tablets to the measure of all things, but for Burow the mobile connection is only the last step in the development. Beginning with the back end, which is mainly dominated by SAP NetWeaver Business Warehouse, Burow takes an approach that, above all, leaves options open with regard to the front-end tool. Even when he was responsible for BI only in the area of material science, a number of different tools were in use until, finally, the custom development roi (PE) came into being. It was developed on the Flex platform and initially for PCs only. Burow invariably found that generating a report was too much work. “You had to go through an endless Customizing tree before you eventually got a report out of it,” he says, “not to mention drag-and-drop functionalities.”

In 2007, Bayer’s controlling department finally started scouring the market for a tool that could execute a report without help from the IT division. WebFOCUS from the New York-based company Information Builders was the name of the solution they found. As far as the functionalities were concerned, it was “a dream,” but more JavaScript code was required than expected, so the increasing costs finally meant that continuing BI on this basis was not possible. “As a result, we didn’t look at any more tools, but developed our own,” Burow says.

Not the lowest common denominator, but rather specific needs – especially concerning usability – were finally the reason for preferring the homegrown solution.

BI tip

Business intelligence consultancy BI Scorecard, based in Sparta, New Jersey, believes that other companies will also take such a path in the future. If the functionalities of the major providers are not sufficient in terms of suitable dashboards, decision-makers will mix different tools and integrate them into an individual BI landscape.

The competition will become increasingly tough, as even large IT companies will have to get used to keeping up with small specialist enterprises and software designers. That’s why Bayer’s BI man Burow stresses the importance of integration capabilities for his environment. “No one can guarantee that our custom development will still be the best solution for us in a year’s time,” he says. The cards will be reshuffled again and decisions will be made according to new criteria.

Today, however, Bayer is planning to roll out its BI solution throughout the group, before preparing it for iPads, Android tablets, and mobile devices based on Windows 8. Maybe then the Bayer employees will have the “Yelp BI” experience that Burow wants for the future.