Interview with

Ajay Ohri of has a selection of interviews with people in the BI/analytics space, including James Taylor and John Fox, the creator of R Commander.

Here’s an interview he did with me last week covering trends in predictive analytics, cloud computing, social network analysis, etc.

Ajay- Describe your career in science from school to Senior Director in SAP to blogger/speaker. How do you think we can convince students of the benefits of learning science and maths.

Timo- I studied economics with statistics in the UK, but I had always been a closet geek and had dabbled with computers ever since I was a kid, starting with Z80 assembler code. I started my career doing low-level computer consulting in Hong Kong, and worked on a series of basic business intelligence projects at Shell in New Zealand, cobbling together a solution based on a mainframe HR system, floppy-disk transfers, and Lotus 1-2-3 macros. When I returned to Europe, I stumbled across a small French startup that provided exactly the “decision support systems” that I had been looking for, and enthusiastically joined the company.

Over the last eighteen years, I’ve worked with hundreds of companies around the world on their BI strategy and my job today is to help evangelize what works and what doesn’t, to help organizations avoid the mistakes that others have made.

When it comes to BI initiatives, I see the results of one fundamental problem almost on a daily basis: 75% of project success depends on people, process, organization, culture, and leadership, but we typically spend 92% of our time on data and technology.

BI is NOT about technology – it’s about helping people do their jobs. So when it comes to education, we need to teach our technologists more about people, not science!

Ajay- You were the 8th employee of SAP Business Objects. What are the key turning points or transition stages in the BI industry that you remember seeing in the past 18 years, and how has SAP Business objects responded to them.

Timo- Executive information systems and multidimensional databases have been around since at least the 1970s, but modern business intelligence dates from the early 1990s, driven by the widespread use of relational databases, graphical user interfaces, and the invention of the “semantic layer”, pioneered by BusinessObjects, that separated business terms from technical logic. For the first time, non-expert business people had self-service access to data.

This was followed by a period of rapid expansion, as leading vendors combined reporting, multidimensional, and dashboard approaches into fully-fledged suites. During this period, BusinessObjects acquired a series of related technology companies to complete the existing offer (such as the leader in operational reporting, Crystal Reports) and extend into enterprise information management and financial performance management.

Finally, the theme of the last few years has clearly been consolidation – according to Gartner, the top four “megavendors” (SAP, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle) now make up almost two-thirds of the market, and accounted for fully 83% of the growth since last year. Perhaps as a result, user deployments are accelerating, with usage growth rates doubling last year.

Ajay- How do you think Business Intelligence would be affected by the following

a) Predictive Analytics.

Timo- Predictive analytics has been the “next big thing in BI” for at least a decade. It has been extremely important in some key areas, such as fraud detection, but the dream of “no longer managing by looking out of the rear-view mirror” has proved hard to achieve, notably because business conditions are forever changing.

We offer predictive analytics with our Predictive Workbench product – but I think the real opportunity for this technology in the future is “power analytics”, rather than “prediction”. For example, helping business people automatically cluster similar values, spot outliers, determine causal factors, and detect trend inflection points, using the data that they already have access to with traditional BI.

b) Cloud Computing.

Timo- In terms of architecture, it’s clearly not about on-demand OR on-premise: it’s about having a flexible approach that combines both approaches. You can compare information to money: today, we tend to keep our money in the bank rather than under our own mattress, because it’s safer, more convenient, and more cost-efficient. At the same time, there are situations where the convenience of cash is still essential.

Companies should be able to choose a BI strategy, and decide how to deploy it later. This is what we offer with our BI on-demand solutions, which use the same technology as on-premise. You can start to build on-premise and move it to on-demand, or vice-versa, or have a mix of both.

In terms of data, “cloud intelligence” is still a work in progress. As with modern financial instruments, we can expect to see the growth of new information services, such as our “information on-demand” product that provide data feeds from Reuters, Thompson Financial, and other providers to augment internal information systems. Looking further into the future, we can imagine new information marketplaces that would pay us “interest” to store our data in the cloud, where it can be adapted, aggregated and sold to others.

c) Social Media.

Timo- Conversations and collaboration are an essential part of effective business intelligence. We often talk about the notion of a “single view of the truth” in this industry, but that’s like saying we can have “a single view of politics” – while it’s vital to try to give everybody access to the same data, there will always be plenty of room for interpretation and discussion. BI platforms need to support this collaborative decision-making.

In particular, there are many, many studies that show up our all-too-human limitations when it comes to analyzing data. For example, did you know that children with bigger feet have better handwriting?

It’s absolutely true — because the children are older! Mixing up correlation and causality is a common issue in business intelligence, and one answer to the problem is to add more people: the more reviewers there are of the decision-making process, the better the decisions will be.

Analysis is also critical to the development of social media, such as analyzing sentiment trends in Twitter — a functionality we offer with SAP CRM — or tracking social communities. For example, Jive, the leader in Enterprise 2.0 platforms, offers our BI products as part of their solution, to help their customers analyze and optimize use of the system. Administrators can track if usage is trailing off in a particular department, for example.

d) Social Network Analysis.

Timo- Over the last twenty years, partly as a result of extensive automation of operational tasks with systems such as SAP, there’s has been a huge shift from “routine” to “non-routine” work. Today, fully 90% of business users say that their work involves decision making, problem solving, and the creation of new analysis and insight.

To help support this new creativity, organizations are becoming more porous as we work closer with our ecosystem of customers, partners, and suppliers, and we work in ever-more matrixed environments and cross-functional teams.

We’ve developed a Social Network Analyzer prototype that combines BI and social networking to create a “single view of relationships”. It can gather information from multiple different systems, such as HR, CRM, email distribution lists, project teams, Twitter, etc., to create a multi-layered view of how people are connected, across and beyond the enterprise. For more information, see the SAP Web 2.0 blog post, and you can try it yourself on our web site.

Ajay- What is the area that SAP BusinessObjects is very good at (strength). What are the key areas that you are currently seeking to improve ( opportunities)

Timo- Companies evaluating BI solutions should look at four things: product functionality for their users’ needs, fit with the overall IT architecture, the vendor’s reputation and ecosystem, and (of course) price. SAP BusinessObjects is the clear leader in the BI industry, and I’d say that SAP BusinessObjects has the best overall solution if you’re a large organization (or looking to become one) with a variety of user needs, multiple data sources, and a heterogeneous IT infrastructure.

In terms of opportunities, we have high expectations for new interfaces for casual users, and in-memory processing, which we have combined in our SAP BusinessObjects Explorer product. Initial customer feedback has been excellent, with quotes such as “finding information is as easy as using the internet” and “if you can use a computer, you can use Explorer”.

In terms of future directions, we’re taking a very transparent, Web 2.0 approach. The SAP BusinessObjects innovation center is modeled on Google Labs and we share our prototypes (including the Social Network Analyzer mentioned above) with anybody who’s interested, and let our customers give us early feedback on what directions we should go.

Ajay- What does Timo Elliott do for work life balance when not writing, talking, and evangelizing about Business Intelligence?

Timo- I’m a keen amateur photographer – for more!