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I’ve been a bit out of my podcast rhythm, partially because of the effort with Dennis Howlett launching, our new video commentary site with an on-demand theme. There are things I still love about podcasting though, so I will still continue in this medium also. One of the best things about podcasting for me is to get into an informal, in-depth group conversation where you get into the nitty gritty of topics that were driving you a bit crazy because you didn’t get the chance to explore them adequately.

When I was taking a bit of a podcasting break, I came back to the question of “why do I do this in the first place?” It isn’t something I did for money, in fact I love giving the end product away for free. There are several motivations, but one of them is that I always loved talk radio. Not the strident and divisive political talk radio we have today, or the angry sports radio where callers dial in and holler about their teams from the arm chair manager perspective. No, I’m thinking more about those nuanced discussions where you really learn all sides of an issue. Talk with people who are willing to question assumptions and who bring in the field-tested knowledge.

Sometimes I think we get too wrapped up in brevity. Heck, I tweet a lot so I have no choice but to learn how to communicate in 140 characters or so. SAP’s Jonathan Becher just wrote a good piece on the virtues of brevity, aptly titled, “be brief.” There’s no denying that knowing how to sum up an issue quickly and memorably, and most of all, knowing when to shut up and listen, are critical skills in our time-starved era. But I would also argue that our cultural discourse suffers from the fact that we walk around intensely debating issues and offering opinions on topics we have no in-depth understanding in. You have to work hard to find the time for those deep dives these days, but I think those deep dives enrich our character. There’s a reason why Harry Potter wasn’t published as a short story. That kind of thinking is what motivates my podcasts.

The fact is there is a ton of great content out there, certainly in SAP BI that is true. The BAC is chock full of it, some of my favorites include SAP Mentor Ingo Hilgefort’s insanely rich resources of BI topics. Which brings me to my latest podcast. There are many great things coming out in SAP BI 4.0, but there are also some questions that have been bothering me, unanswered issues about the integration of analytics and operational data, predictive analytics, SAP’s approach to business rules, whether the Semantic Layer is as big a deal as SAP says. Heck, most of the phrases I just used could stand for some clear definitions.

For that reason, on the week before SAPPHIRE NOW I went after these questions and more with my semi-regular SAP BI podcast co-host Vijay Vijayasankar. To spice things up, we brought in special guest James Taylor of Decision Management Solutions. I had met James at the SAP BI 4.0 launch and was impressed by his breadth of thinking, his strong informed views, and his satirical sense of humor. The end result was a 50 minute podcast that was great fun for someone like me that obasesses on the unanswered questions. I know I have peppered SAP with these questions more than once, so it was nice to give them a break and bat them around for ourselves.

Hopefully there are others out there who wanted to hear some debate about tough BI topics like harnessing the value of unstructured data and whether SAP needs to consolidate its business rules engine. For that matter, why do business rules even matter? Why do vendors struggle with delivering predictive analytics solutions? If you have any further questions after listening to the “thorny SAP BI questions” podcast, don’t hesitate to post them, I’ll try to get to them in future media content.

Podcast links: Vijay’s SCN blog has many topics pertianing to this podcast, as does James Taylor’ own blog. Vijay’s personal blog, “Vijay’s Thoughts on All Things Big and Small,” also has some relevant BI content. Also note: I had a minor static issue on the taping during the first 11 minutes of the podcast. That has largely been fixed in production, but the sound quality improves further at the 11 minute mark.

(If for any reason the embedded player doesn’t work, you can download the podcast using the “download media” link on the right hand side). 

(Trouble downloading? if for some reason it’s not playing in its entirety for you, check out the version on in the meantime, or on my JonERP iTunes feed).

Podcast Highlights

0:00Jon back in the podcast saddle (with semi-regular co-host Vijay Vijayasankar) – Jon’s been busy with, but glad to be back on the podcast airwaves. Special guest James Taylor of Decision Management Solutions joins us.

2:10 Jon to Vijay: We’re waiting on BI 4.0, we expect GA announcement soon, what can we expect? Vijay: I’m excited – we’ve been playing with the rampup version of SAP BI 4.0 for a while, and I’m excited. There is better integration, and SAP has pulled some much-requested features from 4.1 right into 4.0.

4:00 Jon to James: Semantic Layer – BS or important evolution? James: I think it is important. There is a lot of BS around semantics, but I do think semantics matter. From a business rules perspective, my question would be, “Well this is great, but when will there a semantic layer where you can use all the development tools SAP has against it, not just the BI tools?”

6:42 Jon to James: You focus heavily on business rules – why is this area worth blogging about? James: My focus is on decision making, which brings me into contact with a lot of BI people. So how do you help an organization take control of their decision making process? Business rules are a great tool for that, because they are much more transparent and easy to change than code.

8:50 Jon to James: So we’re trying to take the human element out where we feel we can take it out? James: To some extent, yes, but I prefer to say, “We’re trying to help the right person make the decision.” Do you want a new call center person to make the decision on how to retain your best customer?

10:00 Vijay to James: I’m really curious to hear how you see SAP’s business rules functionality. SAP launched BRM a few years ago, but we don’t hear too much about it anymore. James: when most people talk about business rules in SAP, they’re talking about NetWeaver Business Rules Management (BRM), which is integrated with NetWeaver Business Process Management (BPM). In my mind, the more interesting of the two products is BRF Plus, which is an ABAP-based rules framework that allows you to manage your business rules in a repository and then deploy it as ABAP code. For a lot of SAP customers, that’s crucial. You can go to TechEd and see the popularity of ABAP over Java for SAP customer.

13:20 Vijay to James: I completely agree. How do you see NLP (Natural Language Processing) playing into this? If a system can figure out a rule, can it learn a new rule on the fly without a human maintaining a decision tree? Do you see a need for that? James: I’m a bit of a cynic on NLP, because of the question of whose natural language you are talking about.

15:30 Jon to Viyay: That’s a pretty challenging area for SAP to deal with in terms of three different rules areas. Is this ok to have different engines or do they need to be united?

17:30 Jon to James: Let’s venture into predictive analytics. SAP is sick of me asking them about it, so let me ask you guys instead. Why does predictive analytics matter to enterprises? James:  Predictive analytics help you to predict which claims might be fraudulent. Using those rules, you can predict possible outcomes. Predictive analytics are embedded in a way that data visualizations are not. Machines can’t look at visualizations, they can only look at mass, so predictive analytics can be embedded – that is tremendously powerful.

20:50 Vijay: I couldn’t agree more. It’s not even a new technology itself – the statistical methods on which predictive analytics are based have been around for many years. But: only a small percentage of SAP shops are using this technology. The companies that are using it are not shouting it from the rooftops because they don’t necessarily want to clue in others on what they are doing, for example in fraud detection.

23:40 Jon: I’m going to try to explain SAP’s predictive analytics strategy and you guys can comment on it: SAP has said they have two major activity threads. One is they are working on some HANA-based scenarios (though they will not be limited to HANA), where they will use the R open source statistical language, and they are also looking at using fuzzy logic and IQ to expose predictive analytics via in-memory. The other approach is one using a process-driven approach with a new tool called the Predictive Process Designer that they should be showing off at Sapphire Now this year. They are targeting Predictive Process Designer for release at the end of the year, but they are looking at embedding it into SAP BI rather than using it as a standalone workbench, though that scenario may be possible also.

25:05 James: Embedding R into HANA is a perfectly acceptable approach. There are companies out there who have embedded R for a while, and it’s not a small amount of work to do it. The danger is producing predictive analytic models that don’t go anywhere. Vijay: combining predictive analytics with HANA is a neat thing to do. In terms of use cases, I haven’t heard a lot from SAP personally on this yet.

30:00 Jon to James: You’re not going to be at Sapphire this year, but let’s say that you were: what would you want to ask SAP BI executives and product leads?

32:10 Jon to Vijay: Without stealing your Sapphire thunder, what kinds of SAP BI questions are on your mind this year? Vijay: in the context of predictive analytics, I think this would be a good thing to do with customers who have been asking me, “Where are the innovations from on-premise solutions?” A lot of good stuff is going on with on-demand and on-device, but what about on-premise?”

35:10 Vijay: I have a similar question on the HANA side – most SAP shops were sold R/3 with a promise that you never have to worry about table and field level information because it’s all shielded from you. With HANA, you do have to know about tables and fields, and you have to know that at the database level, not the Data Dictionary level, so you have practically no abstraction. This is not the long term vision, it will change over time. But wouldn’t it have been more value-added if HANA already supported ABAP?

37:56: Jon: While we’re on the thorny questions themes, what about the struggle with unstructured information?  Vijay: If SAP has solved this issue, the world needs to know about it. There’s a lot more to explore there.

41:04 James: I’m a bit fed up with this issue because I’m sick of hearing that 80 percent of the value of a company’s information is tied up in unstructured data. If that was true, a database would have been created for it. The vast majority of companies are not taking advantage of the structured data they already have.

Jon makes his case for the value of unstructured information – he doesn’t want to let the vendors off the hook on this issue. James: I do see some use cases for it, but you need to be at a level of sophisticated analytics to get there, and customers are getting distracted by social media and mobile analytics. Helping companies make better decisions with their existing enterprise reporting tools is much harder.

48:00 James: Companies like SAP should invest in this problem of how to help operational systems integrate more effectively with analytics systems. A typical CRM system is as dumb today as when you put it in. Vijay: SAP is probably doing the right thing about how to solve LOB (Line of Business) problems like the large enterprise on-demand team that was under Wookey is doing. If you ask a business user the right questions, in terms of what happens with the reporting result down the line – I’m not sure any vendor is asking that question.

52:00 Jon and Vijay wrap.

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