Business Intelligence Reality: A Q&A Spotlight with Jake Freivald of Information Builders

Originally published 23 January 2012

BeyeNETWORK Spotlights focus on news, events and products in the business intelligence ecosystem that are poised to have a significant impact on the industry as a whole; on the enterprises that rely on business intelligence, analytics, performance management, data warehousing and/or data governance products to understand and act on the vital information that can be gleaned from their data; or on the providers of these mission-critical products.

Presented as Q&A-style articles, these interviews conducted by the BeyeNETWORK present the behind-the-scene view that you won’t read in press releases.

This BeyeNETWORK Spotlight features Ron Powell's interview with Jake Freivald, Vice President of Marketing at Information Builders. Ron and Jake discuss the recent study that Information Builders conducted and the surprising results of that study.

One of the purported benefits of the digital age is the wealth of corporate data available to make better decisions. However, I understand you recently completed a study that showed corporate data isn't necessarily available to everyone who could use it to benefit their company. Additionally, your study also revealed that not all the data that would enable better decisions, better planning, and better relationships with partners, customers, and suppliers is actually available. Let's begin by having you tell us what these findings mean for organizations that are relying on their corporate data asset.

Jake Freivald: The study was conducted by Vanson Bourne, which is an independent research firm. Some of the more interesting results that came out of the study include the fact that only about 40% of all data is accessible to employees. When you consider how small of an amount of data that is compared to the amount of effort that we expend in collecting information and trying to keep it correct and working with it, it seems like that's a tiny number that needs to be expanded greatly.

Almost everybody talks about data as their most important asset. But, like any asset, data has to be exploited and managed. You can't just assume it's going to work like magic. You actually have to do a lot a work in order to get the value out of it. The fact that 60% of data is not accessible to employees shows us that we're not being effective at doing the work necessary to take advantage of our most valued asset.

That is really surprising. We have all of this data and yet 60% of our audience is just not included. Considering that business intelligence and reporting have been around for over 15 years, we still have a long way to go!

Jake Freivald: And when you consider the amount of money we've spent on ERP systems, CRM systems, and so on, if that data is not available, then you've spent a tremendous amount of money and aren't getting the benefits from it.

Jake, Let's drill down into some of the report findings regarding the relationships companies have with their partners, customers, and suppliers. Do you see that companies are becoming more willing to share their internal data with these groups? If so, in what ways and with what end results?

Jake Freivald: Companies are becoming more willing to share their internal data because they know that they need to rely on their partners and even their customers to make better decisions and interoperate with them more effectively. In the B2B world, very often that's an issue of streamlining business processes. Your partners or the people in your supply chain have to be able to make better decisions about what to send you, and when, and what the results were of the last items that they sent you.

On the B2C side, that involves a customer developing trust with you. We all know how important customer trust is to making any customer a good customer. We need to create a win-win situation where the customer actually wants to give us money for doing what we do. That's a critical result of sharing information in this way.

Now the problem comes from how we share information, and we still tend to be locked into some of the old-fashioned ways of doing things. In the Vanson Bourne Study, they found that spreadsheets and email were still the primary tools for sharing information. Spreadsheets forming about 61%, email about 60% – call it even. Three-fifths of information sharing is done with the least secure and most easy to manipulate methods possible. What we believe at Information Builders is that you should try to take as much of that information sharing and make it secure, reliable, managed, oriented toward the data sources you have and the customers, or prospects or partners who need it. Doing that involves different kinds of business intelligence and data-oriented applications that leverage all of that information.

When we've seen people do that, they’ve received tremendous benefits – everything from reduced fines for retailers who are able to show that they didn't short ship, to temporary employment agencies who are able to show their customers exactly what resources they're using and what kind of benefits they're paying, to financial services institutions who are able to collect information that they have to collect anyway such as who bought what and spent how much money. In some cases, they're actually able to turn that around and resell that information to the retailers who use their gift cards or credit cards so that the retailers have better insight into what their own customers are doing. That again, as I said earlier, is a win-win where the information that you collect as part of doing your day-to-day job becomes a valuable asset for both you as a company and for your customers and partners.

Well, that’s surprising to see that both spreadsheets and email numbers are still that high, but most senior executives have limited time to change and adapt to the numerous new capabilities that are available today.

Jake Freivald: I think they want to, but it's hard for them to get a vision for what they want to do in a way that is practical. As an example, a lot of people say they want to get more information to clients, but they end up building or deploying applications that are very complicated. It is impossible to train 10,000 partners or 100,000 customers directly on a complex application. And because you can't do this training, it shows that you really need something different from spreadsheets because spreadsheets require knowledge. It requires something different from business intelligence (BI) tools because BI tools require some kind of training. It requires a different kind of information application that's tailored to the needs of that particular person.

Jake, another major trend for getting information out to a larger audience is mobile BI. One of the promises of mobile is that we can get the data to anyone, anywhere, and to any device – all the way from iPhones to iPads. But the Vanson Bourne study showed that only one-third of enterprises are actually using mobile devices to access BI data. Can you talk about these mobile BI challenges and how they can be solved?

Jake Freivald: Sure. In some ways it’s not surprising that such a limited amount of data has moved on to mobile devices because a fairly limited amount of data is being used. The idea that we need to prioritize the information that goes on to the mobile devices is fine, and I expect that to continue. We just need to work at making sure that when information is available, it's available on mobile devices.

That leads though to one of the most serious challenges with mobile devices, which is that there are so many of them and they tend to be very personal. You can't tell all of your executives they must have an iPad, a certain Android device, a Nook or the new Kindle Fire. You can't mandate that to those within your organization, and you certainly can't mandate it to your customers or any of your partners.

As a result, any time you're sharing information inside or outside the firewall, if you're trying to make it go onto mobile devices, you have to make it support any kind of mobile device. That's where the real challenge is. One the places that we've focused most of our effort at Information Builders from a mobile business intelligence perspective is in making sure that you can deploy once and regardless of the kind of mobile device end users are going to use, they'll be able to receive and manipulate that information correctly. In other words, you write it once and you can deploy it anywhere. That's especially important for our Active Technologies, which bundle the user interface, the analytical engine, and the data all in one document  that's very easy to share. You can share it socially, you can email it to someone, you can post it to an FTP site, you can share in so many ways. But if that ends up on a mobile device, then that user interface that's bundled with the analytical engine and the data has to adapt to the end user's expectations. That means it has to know what mobile device it's on and act accordingly. That's a serious challenge, but the technology is good, and we're seeing a lot of people adopting it simply because they can't control the mobile devices that people are using.

Jake, I really believe that companies are going to standardize on specific mobile devices so they can tailor their applications to the specific devices. This would be very important for them strategically and should be a priority now so that they can control what is used.

Jake Freivald: But I actually think that they're not going to be able to force that standardization even internally, and certainly not with customers.

I can understand your belief as we saw the same thing happen with standardizing on a business intelligence tool. Most large organizations still have multiple BI tools.

Jake Freivald: For example, I was at a trade show just a couple weeks ago, and I started talking to some senior-level IT people about mobile BI. They said they wanted to deploy to the iPad. I said, “Great! Here's what we do for the iPad.” And they liked what they saw. Then I asked if the iPad was the only platform they had, and they indicated they were trying to standardize on it. I then asked if they were going to be able to force everybody to use that platform or if other people were going to require them to be able to support Androids and other tablets. Then they said that basically they're going to be forced to adapt, at least somewhat, to other tablets. I think that type of situation is only going to increase. At Information Builders we believe that we have to be able to support all of the major platforms, and that's something we’ve done for a long time in a lot of contexts. Mobile is just the latest one.

Another finding in the survey that surprised me was that 30% of U.S. companies still use paper-based reports. Obviously, that's not only an environmental nightmare, but it's a format that doesn't easily allow for exploration, and uncovering trends and anomalies. What is your solution for companies that share many of these paper-based reports with their external partners, suppliers, and even their customers?

Jake Freivald: The number is pretty shocking. I know that sometimes I want to print out a report and compare it to what I have on a screen  so that I can see different things at the same time. But if all you have is paper, you can't manipulate, sort, or visualize things differently. One of the key ways that we deal with replacing paper is by providing those Active reports that I talked about just a moment ago. Let's say that the piece of paper you got is a financial statement. If you want to replace the financial statement with an electronic document, then ideally it's going to be more than just a flat PDF that shows the exact same information that the original document did.

Our Active Technologies allow you to say, “Okay, here is the report as you might have seen it, or here's the statement as you might have seen it on the printed report, but now you have drop-down boxes available to you that allow you to choose to see last month as well as this month, or how you're doing year-over-year as opposed to how you're doing just this year.” Our Active Technologies have this capability built into a single document and can be a replacement for paper statements sent to customers. If you give your customers an interactive document that you email to them, and you can replace 200,000 printed statements with 200,000 electronic statements based on Active Technologies, that's a win-win for you and your customer. Your customer gets better interactivity, stronger data, better insight. And, at a cost of a dollar per statement, you save $200,000. That I think is probably the “number one” way to combat paper – completely rethink those paper-based ideas, make them interactive and then deploy them as Active Technologies.

That is a tremendous ROI. Jake, let's wrap up this Spotlight interview by talking about data quality. Going back to your recently completed study, it revealed that almost 70% of the respondents think their data is not reliable. What's the best approach for tackling that issue?

Jake Freivald: Well, it used to be that data was cleaned on the way to the data warehouse. That was the primary place that people thought about data quality as a separate step in a process. We believe that that's not the best way to go. Instead, we recommend that people clean data at the moment it enters the enterprise. We actually call this idea the data quality firewall. The reason for the name is that we spend a ton of money making sure that hackers can't come in and mess up our operations or get valuable data, but we don't think anything about taking data from a spreadsheet  that’s emailed to us or a comma separated file FTP'd over to us and loading it into our operational systems – even though the data in it is going to cause us serious problems including loss of money, loss of time and a lot of customer headaches.

If instead we can act as though there's a data quality firewall around our data, then any time data enters the enterprise, we will cleanse it immediately. If someone hits enter in an SAP screen,  then we're going to capture the information and clean it. If somebody clicks okay on your website placing an order, we're going to capture that information and clean it. When somebody enters a customer ID into a mainframe application, we're going to capture that information and clean it. That way the data is always correct as its going into the operational systems. Because we've cleaned it already in the operational systems, that makes follow-up activities like data warehousing, master data management, and other data-intensive applications much easier; and it also makes application integration and data integration easier. It makes it possible to streamline processes more effectively. So our approach is to implement – to the greatest extent possible – a data quality firewall that will clean the data as it enters the enterprise. Clearly you won't be able to do the entire enterprise at once, but there are certain places where you can prioritize and slowly expand that data quality effort to virtually every aspect of your business.

Jake, that has really been the vision of most of the data quality pundits – that data must be cleaned at the source and once its cleaned at the source we don't have to worry about it downstream. Your approach is right on with the expert thinking in the industry.

Jake Freivald: But you know what is a little different, in the BI community at least? We typically thought about it being cleaned as it was going into the data warehouse and then we would try to feed that information back to the source systems. That reconciliation process is very hard and very painful. The data quality firewall is a way of avoiding that aspect of the reconciliation process and getting it right the first time so that loading the data warehouse or loading your other data intensive systems will be more effective without an additional cleansing process.

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your survey results with our readers.

SOURCE: Business Intelligence Reality: A Q&A Spotlight with Jake Freivald of Information Builders

  • Ron PowellRon Powell
    Ron is an independent analyst, consultant and editorial expert with extensive knowledge and experience in business intelligence, big data, analytics and data warehousing. Currently president of Powell Interactive Media, which specializes in consulting and podcast services, he is also Executive Producer of The World Transformed Fast Forward series. In 2004, Ron founded the BeyeNETWORK, which was acquired by Tech Target in 2010.  Prior to the founding of the BeyeNETWORK, Ron was cofounder, publisher and editorial director of DM Review (now Information Management). He maintains an expert channel and blog on the BeyeNETWORK and may be contacted by email at 

    More articles and Ron's blog can be found in his BeyeNETWORK expert channel.

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