BusinessObjects reporting tools – why I’m a late adopter and a bit disappointed
I’m a SAP customer and I help influence the direction and Business Intelligence approach in my enterprise. We have SAP BW and BusinessObjects systems in our landscape, and together use these systems as a Business Intelligence platform. More simply, BW is the back-end data warehouse for our enterprise’s data and BusinessObjects is the front-end presentation layer, with users accessing information in SAP BW through the BusinessObjects toolsets. Like many SAP BW shops we started our BI journey with SAP BW and its BEx reporting tools, and have since added the BusinessObjects BI 4.0 platform.
Firstly, I’m a big fan of SAP BW and BusinessObjects. I cut my teeth in data warehousing in SAP BW. Whilst from a developer perspective it wasn’t the most straightforward system to learn, use, enhance, maintain, etc… it worked. From a user perspective the BEx suite of reporting tools weren’t the best looking or perhaps easiest to use reporting tools on the block, but they well and truly delivered in terms of functionality. To name a few: true OLAP capability, slicing and dicing to my heart’s content and navigating and jumping into transactions through the Report to Report interface (RRI) to help explain what I was seeing in a report and take action.
Then came along the BusinessObjects acquisition by SAP and I was reintroduced to Crystal reports which I’d been using in a non-SAP context on-top of a Holos server with a SQL database some years back. To me, the usability and look and feel of the reporting tools seemed vastly superior to BEx and I was excited to use Crystal again and getting my hands dirty with the other BusinessObjects reporting tools. Integration with SAP BW data was more of an issue at that time, but SAP has come a long way in streamlining this in the BI 4.0 release.
I’m regularly excited as SAP are constantly innovating and releasing new patches, support packs, functionality, products, etc. There’s always so much to learn and get stuck into. Design studio and HANA, just to name a couple lately that continue to raise the bar.
However maybe partly due to this innovation, I’m a bit confused with the BusinessObjects reporting tools offering… here’s why:
1. Reporting tool proliferation
The number of BusinessObjects reporting tools is expanding. On face value this should be a good thing right? We now have more reporting tools at our disposal to meet a range of BI requirements.
This has introduced an overlap in functionality between some of the reporting tools. I don’t think this is necessarily a full overlap, but instead a partial one. For instance both Dashboards and Design Studio can be used to produce… Dashboards. Highly formatted reports can be created in either Web Intelligence (with interaction) or Crystal (with limited interaction, but pixel perfect layout).
a. Convergence of functionality
This situation begs the question – are the tools converging? If so, why do we need to have so many tools? Why couldn’t the functionality in certain reporting tools be extended and thus eliminate other reporting tools? Wouldn’t it be more simplistic to have one reporting tool that can do everything, rather than one that can partially meet some requirements and another that meets the remaining requirements? Dashboards and Design Studio… I’m looking at you.
I think I’m over simplifying things, but one thing is clear. There will reach a point where SAP cannot continue to produce new reporting tools without decommissioning other reporting tools… there cannot be infinite growth. I don’t think SAP are suggesting that there will be, it’s just that as a customer I know that this is the case, a tool rationalisation is coming at some point and I need to choose tools that I adopt now wisely with this in mind… and perhaps with limited information.
b. Selecting the right tool
The increased number of reporting tools also represents a challenge in terms of selecting the correct tool for a given use case and audience.
I think SAP (in particular Ingo Hilgefort) do a great job in overcoming this challenge and helping customers understand the appropriate use cases and audiences for each tool. There’s a great deal of collateral and community knowledge on SCN that I’ve found valuable in forming reporting toolset decision trees for my enterprise, and indeed challenging my own beliefs of what tools should be chosen for a given scenario and audience. This information assists in forming a judgement of which tool should be selected, but at this point we’re only looking at the tools in isolation.
2. Reporting tool interoperability
It’s important (and I hope obvious) to state that the reporting tools however will not always be used in isolation… sometimes they will be, but not always. Scenarios exist in which multiple reporting tools will need to be used to elicit a particular answer. Where this is the case, from a usability perspective we should aim to make the transition between the tools as seamless to the user as possible.
One step in achieving this is through ‘guided navigation’ that SAP have often mentioned, that is passing the context (or intersection) of the information that the user is examining to the other report tool, so it can be further analysed. For instance, a user might run a dashboard which highlights a particular exception (good or bad!) and they wish to understand what contributed to that result. The dashboard doesn’t contain enough information to fully explain what is contributing to the result and as such they click on the exception and launch an analysis report which shows the components of the exception in greater detail and dimensionality.
Here’s my problem…. today the above scenario isn’t possible. Well if I’m using BusinessObjects Edition for Analysis OLAP for the analysis report it isn’t possible to pass the context and if I’m using Web Intelligence it is. So depending on which tool you choose, you will have a different integration outcome.
I find this hard to understand and am surprised that the integration and interoperability of the reporting toolsets doesn’t receive more focus from SAP. Perhaps there are other factors at stake, but the fact is that SAP is releasing products to the market that do not fully interoperate with each other. I don’t think I’m alone in being disappointed when we discover that this is the case. I think to ensure my expectations are managed (and I tend to get pretty excited when new tools are released) I would like to see the interoperability of the tool with other tools in the suite more clearly spelt out in terms of what’s possible and what’s not.
Another scenario where disappointment arose was the functionality and integration of SAP BW data with the initial Design Studio 1.0 release. During a PoC we discovered that Design Studio 1.0 couldn’t leverage true OLAP slice and dice navigation on SAP BW data as BEx Web Application Designer (WAD) could, i.e. I couldn’t drag a dimension from a navigation pane into my crosstab. Even though the tool was being marketed as a successor to BEx WAD, it was missing this core piece of functionality. Also there were issues with the integration of BEx variable based prompting and RRI-like interoperability.
These issues led us to deferring adoption of this tool until they are rectified. Again this lack of functionality and integration wasn’t clear until we tried and in our case, didn’t buy. I’m aware that both of these issues are planned to be rectified in later releases, but I’d be interested to hear if other people had a similar or different experience to us.
While SAP might indicate that these shortfalls are addressed in the roadmap, it doesn’t fix the user angst today, and only adds to it when we need to change the options for the users later. In addition there’s still a degree of uncertainty as the roadmap is subject to change.
While such fundamental problems remain, I believe it will be difficult for enterprises that have traditionally used SAP BW reporting tools to fully embrace the complete BusinessObjects tool suite. For all the limitations in the look and feel and ease of use of BEx queries and the Web Application Designer, they did provide relatively seamless integration and interoperability through the SAP suite.
For such enterprises adopting the BusinessObjects tools would result in functionality being taken away from their user base, and that’s unlikely to fly. I would like to see both tool interoperability and integration within the SAP suite receive more focus when tools are released to the market, otherwise I’ll continue to be a late adopter and a little bit disappointed.