Over the weekend, Christian Gheorghe, CEO Tidemark was good enough to field a long call where we discussed the approach his company is taking to analytics and business intelligence. The timing was perfect. As we prepare for a couple of days of presentations at NetSuite SuiteWorld 2013, I was asked if I will address the topic of whether transactional systems can truly provide business intelligence insights in one of the panel sessions.
It's a tricky one. It seems that we have been forever fighting against data stuck inside transactional systems. They were never built for getting data out but only for getting data in. It is therefore no surprise to find this is a multi-billion dollar business that for all its efforts has remained stuck on a data warehouse type model, often run by IT and requiring the business to make a case for IT to act. Even then you are often looking at excessive lead times. Is it any wonder then that many people have defaulted using the spreadsheet?
I have long argued that despite its ubiquity, the spreadsheet is largely unfit for purpose. This is especially true when put into the hands of those who don't know how to document their code. In 2008 I said:
The net result is that when things go wrong, errors are notoriously difficult to find. What's more, there seems to be a fundamental lack of awareness around the extent of spreadsheet error. Some studies I've seen suggest it is as high as 95%. Panko's latest research asserts:
In general, errors seem to occur in a few percent of all cells, meaning that for large spreadsheets, the issue is how many errors there are, not whether an error exists.
The problem is that when spreadsheet errors occur they frequently have a massive impact. Tidemark wants to change that - and a lot more besides.
They have correctly understood that in today's world, business needs to make decisions in context. That in turn means people have to not only understand what the numbers mean but also how those numbers are nuanced in the context of business processes and the environment in which they arose. An example: "When Chuck.e.Cheese want to open a new store, they don't just consider the competitive landscape in the neighbourhood. They need to know about the hiring environment, supply lines and whole load of other metrics you wont find in any set of accounts," says Gheorghe. More prosaically, Chuck.e.Cheese is using Tidemark to figure out how best to respond to customer demand while improving profitability.
That level of understanding can only come when you have financial, HR and unstructured information coming from sources close to the neighborhood. Similarly, if you are benchmarking, then you need include a bunch of data about competitors. Where is that going to come from?
Tidemark is working on a way of presenting that information in what it calls 'storylines' (see image at top of page.) These are an attempt to provide a more complete picture of the business so that people can take decisions, in close to real-time, that relate to the processes with which they are working. The hope is that business decision makers will be far better placed to make not just the right decisions but at the right time.
I like this idea. It is well beyond what we usually expect to see from a dashboard. More important, the way the Tidemark user experience is shaping up, I can see it having the potential to drive analytics deep into the business. By way of confirmation, Gheorghe told me that early deals where they sold in 250 seats are now going enterprise wide. "This is giving us a new challenge which is all about how you scale out beyond a few reports and make the solution truly valuable to all parts of the business." It's a nice problem to have.
So to the question at the top of this post, I'd argue that we are in the early stage of a new iteration of analytics. It is one that starts with user needs and then makes it easy for those same users to understand the business picture they're examining. Vendors like Tidemark are taking the heavy lifting and much of the cost out of the equation while providing users with fast track to value: "We aim to have the first planning or forecasting application in users' hands in around 30 days," says Gheorghe.
Die hard business intelligence consultants worry about data governance on the basis that crap in = crap out. Gheorghe is more than willing to have those discussions: "When you do what we do then you have to take care of governance or otherwise we would end up misleading the user. It's one of the top of mind things we attend to 0n behalf of customers about which they don't have to be concerned."
There is a long way to go and Tidemark's approach is sufficiently different for any company to take a breath and think about how it will overcome many new challenges. But - and this si the big one - the problem of sense making in operational forecasting and planning has been taken away. Tidemark storylines speak to the business user in a fresh, interesting yet logical way. What's more, Tidemark is happy to sit alongside traditional reporting. "We're not solving yesterday's problem, we're solving today's and tomorrows," says Gheorghe.
Photo credit: Jim Merithew/Wired.com