Businesses have mastered using the Web as a communication
tool, and with good reason. The Internet has proven to speed connectivity
between disparate organizations and enable a mobile workforce. Yet leading
organizations are realizing that using the Web channel to communicate business
intelligence (BI) in near real-time fashion supersedes its previous use as an
information dissemination and collaboration tool.

Not so long ago, paper reporting was distributed on a
monthly, or less-frequent, basis. As business users became more and more
technology-savvy, reporting became more “downloadable” on demand. A
step in the right direction in terms of flexibility, yet this had each user
slicing and dicing data as he saw fit to find hidden treasure in the
information. Most individual employees have neither a full view of corporate
objectives, nor the expert knowledge or the time to dig for critical
information in raw or even summary data.

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When it comes to delivering BI, the goals should be
accessibility and clarity — not flexibility. End users should not have to wonder
how to find the information that they are looking for, and what the information
they are looking at means. This focus is further heightened when new and less
sophisticated delivery platforms are considered; for example, mobile devices
are not equipped to handle large amounts of data manipulation, but are perfect
to receive frequent updates of succinct business intelligence.

To succeed in today’s competitive, fast-paced business
environment, it is imperative that the right content is aggregated and
delivered to the right people at the critical moment when a decision must be
executed. The following eight strategies will help companies ensure they are distributing
the kind of high-quality, actionable BI necessary to make real-time business decisions.

1. Pick the best delivery vehicle for your audience and your data

Core metrics that users need to develop a quick and clear understanding
of the organization’s state of health should not exceed five to eight numbers. Typically,
such information is not intended to be printed and taken to a meeting, and is
therefore well suited for placement on a dashboard, mobile device or in a pagelet on a portal page.

Detailed reports, on the other hand, are better looked at on
paper and should be provided in document format, such as PDF or Excel. Rendered
documents provide much more control over the appearance of a printed report versus
HTML Web pages.

2. Integrate the presentation layer

A BI solution is often built as an add-on component to the
transactional system that generates much of the data. Users who work with the
transactional system want access to reports from where they need it — from
within the application — and are much less likely to navigate to a different
web site that would invariably come with a different user experience. Since the
value of the reports depends directly upon a user’s ability to locate, analyze
and use the information skillfully and appropriately, we recommend that the reports
become part of the application’s user interface. Furthermore, providing direct
links to important reports from key locations on the interface will give you
tighter control over where the reports appear and to whom.

3. Integrate the security layer

In order to effectively integrate the presentation layers of
your report delivery application and your transactional application, it is
necessary to integrate security layers as well. One way to accomplish this is a
true integration with shared user accounts. However, this approach can be complicated
if either side uses proprietary security. A simulated integration where the
application authenticates with the reporting server through a service account
is comparably simple and straight-forward to implement. In this scenario, the
application proxies all requests to the report server and streams the results
back to the client. This has the added benefit that a user does not need to
access the report server directly so that it can be hidden behind a firewall. A
reference implementation of a Java proxy for SQL Server Reporting Services is
described in [1].

4. Customize the presentation for target devices and user roles

There is great appeal to the idea of making critical
business information available to decision makers anywhere in the world, using
current data and not depending on any additional infrastructure other than a
cell phone or PDA. Yet, as previously noted, clarity and
accessibility become even more important for mobile device access. Full-scale
BI reports are too ungainly to be delivered to the small screens of handheld
devices, and cell phones don’t come with sophisticated input devices. Therefore,
BI reports for wireless devices should be limited to a set of key performance
indicators or a dashboard. In addition, navigation must be cut down to what is
absolutely necessary.

5. Target reports to users

If access to reports is integrated into a transactional
application, parameters can be passed to the report server that reflect the
user’s role selection, current navigational context, and other values that a
report can use to create a targeted and customized view of the data. For
instance, if the application maintains some sort of organizational tree and
users can navigate from the corporate level to regional and branch office
levels, the reports can show data for the currently selected node in the
organization. The user does not have to navigate down to the node again in a
separate report application.

6. Use a combined push/pull model

In order to maximize the use of a BI solution, it can be
helpful to push information to the users instead of depending on their ability
to pull the information when needed. If your presentation layer is already
integrated with a transactional application that the users rely on on a daily basis, this information push can be done on Web pages
with ticklers, “advertisements” and links to reports. Alternatively,
report updates can be pushed via email.

7. Keep information timely

The closer to real-time your enterprise BI data is, the more
costly the implementation, especially in large scale enterprises. Keep in mind
that information is only useful if it pertains to decisions that need to be
made. Therefore, firms should be judicious about hat their information
requirements truly are and plan accordingly.

8. Enterprise
Application Integration (EAI)

Though we recommend delivering key performance indicators (KPIs) within the proper context and application (i.e., not
forcing the user to a separate application), calculating and delivering KPIs often requires information integrated from other
applications.

This form of EAI can be accomplished in many ways, from the database
level on up to Web Services, or with simple feeds from the system of record. Be
aware of the EAI requirements, especially when you consider outsourcing any
portion of your critical operation (data). Oft overlooked in these budgets, you
will need two-way communication with the outsourced data.

While the Web is a very effective distribution channel for
business intelligence, Web features should only be used with a specific goal in
mind or they will subtract value from a solution. Even a disciplined approach
will only be successful if the potential pitfalls identified above are being managed
properly. BI is most effective through the merger of EAI initiatives with
relevant positioning of business intelligence. The power of EAI and BI together
allows a concise focus on creating business value: disseminating easily
understood information to each employee’s unique information requirements,
without requiring slicing and dicing on their own — and in near real-time
(NRT) fashion.

 

Christian Donner has 20 years of experience converting data to useful
information. He is a senior technical architect at Molecular, a web consulting
firm located in the Boston area. He can be reached at pubs2005@donners.com.

 

Tim Michaud has16
years experience in project delivery and consulting. His experience includes
EAI, BI, CRM, supporting business strategy through the
development, and implementation and maintenance of mission critical systems. He
is a technical program manager at Molecular. He can be reached at tim.michaud@gmail.com.

 

References

[1] Christian Donner,
Ilia Papas: A Java Proxy for MS SQL Server Reporting Services

http://www.javaworld.com/javaworld/jw-01-2005/jw-0110-sqlrs.html