For quite some time, one of the most frequent marketing pitches I’ve heard is “Analytics made easy for everybody!”, where by “quite some time” I mean “over 30 years”. “Uniquely easy analytics” is a claim that I meet with the greatest of skepticism.* Further confusing matters, these claims are usually about what amounts to business intelligence tools, but vendors increasingly say “Our stuff is better than the BI that came before, so we don’t want you to call it ‘BI’ as well.”
*That’s even if your slide deck doesn’t contain a picture of a pyramid of user kinds; if there actually is such a drawing, then the chance that I believe you is effectively nil.
All those caveats notwithstanding, there are indeed at least three forms of widespread analytics:
- Fairly standalone, eas(ier) to use business intelligence tools, sometimes marketed as focusing on “data exploration” or “data discovery”.
- Charts and graphs integrated or at least well-embedded into production applications. This technology is on a long-term rise. But in some sense, integrated reporting has been around since the invention of accounting.
- Predictive analytics built into automated systems, for example ad selection. This is not what is usually meant by the “easy analytics” claim, and I’ll say no more about it in this post.
It would be nice to say that the first two bullet points represent a fairly clean operational/investigative BI split, but that would be wrong; human real-time dashboards can at once be standalone and operational.
Often, the message “Our BI is easy to use by everybody, unlike every other BI offering in the past 40 years” is unsupported by facts; vendors just offer me-too BI technology and falsely claim it’s something special. But sometimes there is actual substance, usually in one or more aspects of time-to-answer. For example:
- Sometimes the BI itself has a particularly good interface for navigation.
- I think it’s still possible to be differentiated in mobile BI delivery.
- It’s definitely still possible to be differentiated in real-time/streaming BI interfaces.
- Sometimes the visible BI is just part of a specialized stack, whose other elements make it much easier to set up working UI than in the traditional model.
- Some claims along these lines are bogus, drawing false comparisons to worst-case scenarios in which enterprises take a year or two setting up their first-ever data warehouse.
- Some of these claims, however, are more legitimate, at least to the extent that the stack includes leading-edge smart data integration, schema-on-need data management, and so on.
One items I’m leaving off the list is the capability to easily design charts, graphs or whole dashboards. When BI vendors add that functionality, they often present it as an industry innovation; but it’s been years since I saw something in that vein beyond the me-too.