Finance is the Participation Sport of the BI Olympics

IT is no longer the powerhouse that it once was, and unfortunately for CIOs who haven’t embraced change, much of their realm was commoditized by cloud computing powered by the core principles of grid computational engines and schema-less database designs. The whole concept of spending millions of dollars to bring all disparate systems together into one data warehouse has proven modesty beneficial but if we are being truly honest, what has all that money and time actually yielded, especially towards the bottom line?
And by the time you finished with the EDW, I guarantee it was missing core operational data streams that were then designed into their own sea of data marts. Fast forward a few years, and you probably have some level of EDW, many more data marts , probably one or more cube (ROLAP/MOLAP) applications and n-number of cubes or a massive 1+ hyper-cube(s) and still, the business depends of spreadsheets to sit on top of these systems, creating individual silos of information under the desk or in the mind of one individual.

Wait<<<rewind<<< Isn’t that where we started?

Having disparate, ungoverned and untrusted data sources being managed by individuals instead of by enterprise systems of record?

And now we’re back>>>press play to continue>>>

When you stop to think about the last ten years, fellow BI practitioners, you might be scared of your ever-changing role. From a grass-roots effort to a formalized department team, Business Intelligence went from the shadows to the mainstream, and brought with it reports then dashboards, then KPIs and scorecards, managing by exception, proactive notifications and so on. And bam! We were hit by the first smattering of changes to come when Hadoop and others hit the presses. But we really didnt grok what the true potential and actual meaning of said systems unless you come from a background like myself, either competitively, or from a big data friendly industry group like telecommunications, or from a consultant/implementation p.o.v.
And then social networking took off like gang busters and mobile became a reality with the introduction of the tablet device (though, I hate to float my boat as always by mentioning my soap box dream spewed at a TDWI conference about the future of mobile BI when the 1st generation iPhone released).

But that is neither here nor there. And, as always, I digress and am back…

At the same time as we myopically focused on the technological changing landscape around us, a shifting power paradigm was building wherein the Finance organization, once relegated to the back partition of cubicles, where a pin drop was heard ’round the world (or at least, the floor), was growing more and more despondent with not being able to access the data they needed without IT intervention in order to update their monthly forecasts and produce their subsequent P&L, Balance Sheet and Cash Flow Planning statements. And IT’s response was to acquire (for additional millions of dollars) a “BI tool” aka an ad-hoc reporting application that would allow them to pull their own data. But it had been installed and the data had been pulled, and validated and by the time of completion, the Finance team had either found an alternate solution or found the system useful for a very small sliver of analysis but went outside of IT to get additional sources of information that wanted and needed to adapt to the changing business pressures from the convergence of social, mobile and unstructured datasets. And suddenly those once, shiny BI tools, seemed like antiquated relics, and simply could not handle the sheer data volumes that were now expected from it or would crash (unless filtered beyond the point of value). Businesses need not adapt their queries to the tool but need a tool that can adapt to their ever-changing processes and needed.

Drowning in data but starving for information...

Drowning in data but starving for information…

So if necessity if the mother of invention, Finance was its well deserving child. And why? The business across the board is starving for information but drowning in data. And Finance is no longer a game of solitaire, understood by few and ignored by many. In fact, Finance has become the participation sport of the BI Olympics, and rightfully so, where departmental collaboration at the fringe of the organization has proven as the missing link that before prevented successful top-down planning efforts. Where visualizations demands made dashboards a thing of the past, and demanded and better story, vis-a-vie storylines / infographics, to help disseminate more than just the numbers, but the story behind the numbers to the rest of the organization, or what I like to call the “fringe”.

I remember a few years ago when the biggest challenge was getting data, and often, we joked about how nice it would be to have a sea of data to drown in; an analysts’ buffet-du-jour; a happy paralysis-induced-by said analysis plate was the special of the day, yet only for a few, while the rest was but a gleam in our data-starved eyes.

Looking forward from there, I ask, dear reader, where do we go from here…If it’s a Finance party and we are all invited, what do we bring to the party table as BI practitioners of value? Can we provide the next critical differentiator?

Well, I believe that we can, and that critical differentiator is forward-looking data. Why?

Gartner Group stated that “Predictive data will increase profitability by 20% and that historical data will become a thing of the past” (for a BI practitioner, the last part of that statement should worry you, if you are still resisting the plunge into the predictive analytics pool).

Remember, predictive is a process that allows an organization to get true insight and has been executed amongst a larger group of people to drive faster, smarter business users. This is perfect for enterprise needs because by definition, they offer a larger group of people to work with.

Smooth sailingIn fact, it was Jack Welch would said  An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage” 

If you haven’t already, go out and started learning one of the statistical application packages. I suggest “R” and in the coming weeks, I will provide R and SAS scripts (I have experience with both) for those interested in growing their chosen profession and remaining relevant as we weather the sea of business changes


MicroStrategy Personal Cloud – a Great **FREE** Cloud-based, Mobile Visualization Tool

Have you ever needed to create a prototype of a larger Business Intelligence project focused on data visualizations? Chances are, you have, fellow BI practitioners. Here’s the scenario for you day-dreamers out there:

Think of the hours spent creating wire-frames, no matter what tool you used, even if said tool was your hand and a napkin (ala ‘back of the napkin’ drawing) or the all-time-favorite white board, which later becomes a permanent drawing with huge bolded letters to the effect of ‘DO NOT ERASE OR ITS OFF WITH YOUR HEAD’ annotations dancing merrily around your work. Even better: electronic whiteboards which yield you hard copies of your hard work (so aptly named), which at first, seems like the panacea of all things cool (though it has been around for eons) but still, upon using, deemed the raddest piece of hardware your company has, until, of course, you look down at the thermal paper printout which has already faded in the millisecond since you tore it from machine to hand, which after said event, leaves the print out useless to the naked eye, unless you have super spidey sense optic nerves, but now I digress even further and in the time it took you to try to read thermal printout, it has degraded further because anything over 77 degrees is suboptimal (last I checked we checked in at around 98.6 but who’s counting), thus last stand on thermal paper electronic whiteboards is that they are most awesome when NOT thermoregulate ;).

OK, and now We are back…rewind to sentence 1 –

Prototyping is to dashboard design or any data visualization design as pencils and grid paper are to me. Mano y mano – I mean, totally symbiotic, right?

But, wireframing is torturous when you are in a consultative or pre-sales role, because you can’t present napkin designs to a client, or pictures of a whiteboard, unless you are showing them the process behind the design. (And by the way, this is an effective “presentation builder” when you are going for a dramatic effect –> ala “first there were cavemen, then the chisel and stone where all one had to create metrics –> then the whiteboard –> then the…wait!

This is where said BI practitioner needs to have something MORE for that dramatic pop, whiz-AM to give to their prospective clients/customers in their leave behind presentation.

And finally, the girl gets to her point (you are always so patient, my loving blog readers)…While I biased, if you forget whom I work for, and just take into account the tool, you will see the awesomeness that the new MicroStrategy Personal Cloud is for (drum roll please) PROTOTYPING a new dashboard — or just building, distributing, mobilizing etc your spreadsheet of data in a highly stylized, graphical means that tell a story far better than a spreadsheet can in most situations. (Yes, neighseyers, I know that for the 5% of circumstances which you can name, a spreadsheet is more àpropos, but HA HA, I say: this cloud personal product has the ability to include the data table along with the data visualizations!)

Best of all it is free.

I demoed this recently and was able to time it took to upload and spreadsheet, render 3 different data visualizations, generate the link to send to mobile devices (iPads and iPhones), network latency for said demo-ees to receive the email with the link and for them to launch the dashboard I created, and guess what the total time was?

Next best of all, it took only 23.7 minutes from concept to mobilization!

Mind you, I was also using data from the prospect that I had never seen or had any experience with.

OK, here is how it was done:

1) Create a FREE account or login to your existing MicroStrategy account (by existing, I mean, if you have ever signed up for the MicroStrategy forums or discussion boards, or you are an employee, then use the same login) at

Cloud Home

Landing Page After Logged in to Personal Cloud

2) Click the button to Create New Dashboard:

Create Dashboard Icon

  • Now, you either need to have a spreadsheet of data OR you can choose one of the sample spreadsheets that MicroStrategy provides (which is helpful if you want to see how others set up their data in Excel, or how others have used Cloud personal to create dashboards; even though it is sample data , it is actually REAL data that has been scrub-a-dub-dubbed for your pleasure!) If using a sample data set, I recommend the FAA data. It is real air traffic data, with carrier, airport code, days of the week, etc, which you can use to plan your travel by; I do…See screenshot below. There are some airports and some carriers who fly into said airports whom I WILL not fly given set days of the week in which I must travel. If there is a choice, I will choose to fly alternate carriers/routes. This FAA data set will enable you to analyze this information to make the most informed decision (outside of price) when planning your travel. Trust me…VERY HELPFUL! Plus, you can look at all the poor slobs without names sitting at the Alaska Air gate who DIDNT use this information to plan their travel, and as you casually saunter to your own gate on that Tuesday between 3 – 6 PM at SeaTac airport , you will remember that they look so sad because their Alaska Air flight has a 88% likelihood of being delayed or cancelled. (BTW, before you jump on me for my not so nice reference to said passengers), it is merely a quotation from my favorite movie ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ …says Holly Golightly: “Poor cat…poor old slob without a name”.

On time Performance (Live FAA Data)

If using your own data, select the spreadsheet you want to upload

3) Preview your data; IMPORTANT STEP: make sure that you change any fields which to their correct type (either Attribute or Metric or Do Not Import).

Cloud Import - Preview Data

Keep in mind the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time, MicroStrategy will designate your data as either an Attribute or Metric correctly using a simple rule of thumb: Text or VarChar/NVarChar if using SQL Server, will always be designated as an Attribute (i.e. your descriptor/Dimension) and your numerals designated as your Metrics. BUT, if your spreadsheet uses ID fields, like Store ID, or Case ID, along with the descriptor like Store DESC or Case DESC, most likely MicroStrategy will assume the Store ID/Case ID are Metrics (since the fields are numeric in the source). This is an Easy Change! You just need to make sure ahead of time to make that change using the drop down indicator arrows in the column headings – To find them, hover over the column names with your mouse icon until you see the drop down indicator arrow. Click on the arrow to change an Attribute column to a Metric column and vice-versa (see screenshot):

Change Attribute to Metric

Once you finish with previewing your data, and everything looks good, click OK at the bottom Right of your screen.

In about 30-35 seconds, MicroStrategy will have imported your data into the Cloud for you to start building your awesome dashboards.

4) Choose a visualization from the menu that pops up on your screen upon successfully importing your spreadsheet:

Dashboard Visualization Selector
Change data visualization as little or as often as you choose

Here is the 2010 NFL data which I uploaded this morning. It is a heatmap showing the Home teams as well as any teams they played in the 2010 season. The size of the box is HOW big the win or loss was. The color indicates whether they won or lost (Green = Home team won // Red = Home team lost).

For all you, dear readers, I bid you a Happy New Year. May your ideas flow a plenty, and your data match your dreams (of what it should be) :). Go fearlessly into the new world order of business intelligence, and know that I , Laura E. your Dashboard Design Diva, called Social Intelligence the New Order, in 2005, again in 2006 and 2007. 🙂 Cheers, ya’ll.

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Business Intelligence Clouds – The Skies the Limit

I am back…(for now, or so it seems these days) – I promise to get back to one post a month if not more.

Yes, I am known for my frequent use of puns, bordering on the line between cheesy and relevant. Forgive the title. It has been over 110 days since I last posted, which for me is a travesty. Despite my ever growing list of activities both professional and personally, I have always put my blog in the top priority quadrant.

Enough ranting…I diverged; and now I am back.

Ok, cloud computing (BI tools related) seems to be all the rage. Right up there with Mobile

BI, big data and social. I dare use my own term coined back in 2007 ‘Social Intelligence’ as now others have trade marked this phrase (but we, dear readers, know the truth –> we have been thinking about the marriage between social networks / social media data sets and business intelligence for years now)…Alas, I diverge again. Today, I have been thinking a lot about cloud computing and Business Intelligence.

Think about BI and portals, like Sharepoint (just to name 1)…It was all of the rage (or perhaps, still is)…”Integrate my BI reporting with my intranet / portal /Sharepoint web parts…OK, once that was completed successfully, did it buy much in terms of adoption or savings or any number of those ROI / savings catch – “Buy our product, and your employees will literally save so much time they will be basket weaving their reports into TRUE analysis'” What they didnt tell you, was that more bandwidth meant less need for those people, which in turn, meant people went into scarcity mode/tactics trying to make themselves seem or be relevant…And I dont fault them for this…Companies were not ready or did not want to think about what they were going to do with the newly freed up resources that they would have when the panacea of BI deployments actually came to fruition…And so, the wheel turned. What was next…? Reports became dashboards; dashboards became scorecards (became the complements for the former); Scorecards introduced proactive notification / alerting; alerting introduced threshold based notification across multiple devices/methods, one of which was mobile; mobile notification brought the need for mobile BI –> and frankly, and I will say it: Apple brought us the hardware to see the latter into fruition…Swipe, tap, double tap –> drill down was now fun. Mobile made portals seem like child’s play. But what about when you need to visualize something and ONLY have it on a spreadsheet?

(I love hearing this one; as if the multi-billion dollar company whose employee is claiming to only have the data on a spreadsheet didnt get it from somewhere else; I know, I know –> in the odd case, yes, this is true…so I will play along)…

The “only on a spreadsheet” crowd made mobile seem restrictive; enter RoamBI and the likes of others like MicroStrategy (yes, MicroStrategy now has a data import feature for spreadsheets with advanced visualizations for both web and mobile)…Enter Qlikview for the web crowd. The “I’m going to build-a dashboard in less than 30 minutes” salesforce “wait…that’s not all folks….come now (to the meeting room) with your spreadsheet, and watch our magicians create dashboards to take with you from the meeting”

But no one cared about maintenance, data integrity, cleanliness or accuracy…I know…they are meant to be nimble, and I see their value in some instances and some circumstances…Just like the multi-billion dollar company who only tracks data on spreqadsheets…I get it; there are some circumstances where they exist…But, it is not the norm.

So, here we are …mobile offerings here and there; build a dashboard on the fly; import spreadsheets during meetings; but, what happens when you go back to your desk and have to open up your portal (still) and now have a new dashboard that only you can see unless you forward it out manually?

Enter cloud computing for BI; but not at the macro scale; let’s talk , personal…Personal clouds; individual sandboxes of a predefined amount of space which IT has no sanction over other than to bless how much space is allocated…From there, what you do with it is up to you; Hackles going up I see…How about this…

Image representing Salesforce as depicted in C...
Image via CrunchBase –> The biggest CRM cloud today. And for the last many years, SFDC has

enbraced Cloud Computing. And big data for that matter; and databases ( in fact) in the cloud…Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

So isnt it natural for BI to follow CRM into cloud computing ?? Ok, ok…for those of you whose hackles are still up, some rules (you IT folks will want to read further):

Rules of the game:

1) Set an amount of space (not to be exceeded; no matter what) – But be fair and realistic; a 100 MB is useless; in today’s world, a 4 GB zip drive was advertised for $4.99 during the back to school sales, so I think you can pony up enough to help make the cloud useful.

2) If you delete it, there is a recycling bin (like on your PC/Mac); if you permanently delete it, too bad/so sad…We need to draw the line somewhere. Poor Sharepoint admins around the world are having to drop into STSADM commands to restore Alvin Analyst’s Most Important Analysis that he not only moved into recycling bin but then permanently deleted.

3) Put some things of use in this personal cloud at work like BI tools; upload a spreadsheet and build a dashboard in minutes wiht visualizations like the graph matrix (a crowd pleasure) or a time series slider (another crowd favorite; people just love time based data 🙂 But I digress (again)…

4) Set up BI reporting on the logged events; understand how many users are using your cloud environment; how many are getting errors; what and why are they getting errors; this simple type of event based logging is very informative. (We BI professionals tend to overthink things, especially those who are also physicists).

5) Take a look at what people are using the cloud for; if you create and add meaningful tools like BI visualizations and data import and offer viewing via mobile devices like iPhone/iPad and Android or web, people will use it…

This isnt a corporate iTunes or MobileMe Cloud; this isnt Amazon’s elastic cloud (EC2). This is a cloud wiht the sole purpase of supporting BI; wait, not just supporting, but propelling users out of the doldrums of the current state of affairs and into the future.

It’s tangible and just cool enough to tell your colleagues and work friends “hey, I’ve got a BI cloud; do you?”