While analysts and media get dewy-eyed about the latest shiny new toys (and the companies that come with them) I find that some of the long-established players in the BI space make better sense of enterprise needs. While it is a long time since I took a close look at MicroStrategy, this latest release is certainly worth more than a cursory peek. First a bit of history.
A potted history
It's impossible to talk about MicroStrategy without a quick historical thumbnail sketch. I remember the company as a darling of the late 1990s dot-com era, when it was promising BI in ways that sounded truly differentiated at the time. But it ran into trouble through some creative accounting. I recall attempting to get to the bottom of what was going on with Mike Saylor, CEO at a meeting in Washington and coming away with a deeply uneasy feeling. As night turns to day, the company turned out to have serious regulatory issues that brought the kind of reality check most CEOs don't survive. Saylor stepped back, took his corporate dose of salts and returned a decade later. Today, the firm is profitable but its revenue has been slowly declining the last five years. Looking ahead, MicroStrategy needs this latest release to be as successful if it is to regain its place as one of the top players as the Cinderella of enterprise BI. The question comes - is there enough?
Back in 2000, I quoted Saylor as saying:
I don't want to be spammed by SMS [short message service] anymore than I do over email. If we provide the intelligence to make sure customers are only receiving the handful of messages they really want, then we have created real value.
A new class of analytics?
Saylor has always given the impression of being ahead of his time and if that quote sounds prescient then delivery has been a long time in the making. Today, MicroStrategy claims that its new offering is:
...a new class of enterprise intelligence that transforms the way users access the information needed to make countless decisions every moment throughout the day. With MicroStrategy 2019, organizations can inject information directly into a user’s web-based workflows using a HyperCardTM feature, new with MicroStrategy 2019, which elegantly presents powerful information and KPIs about customers, products, people, and more. Business users can simply hover over highlighted keywords to surface content-rich HyperCards on websites and in web applications like email, Salesforce, or Office 365.
New? Well kind of. In a demo, the company showed a variety of scenarios where Hypercards are displayed, showing contextually relevant information. One of the scenarios was an Outlook screen where details about a person and their company act as an overlay to whatever email is on display. I have seen this kind of thing before and with more companies looking to leverage data from otherwise siloed sources, it is not hard to imagine others coming into the fray. Where MicroStrategy scores though is in its broad swathe of integrations.
That is especially true where Microsoft is involved since intelligence infused Office is where that company is going yet it needs the likes of MicroStrategy to enhance those data sources Microsoft doesn't own - such as Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, and many others. Today, MicroStrategy counts more than 200 data sources available to its platform. But that's not a slam dunk either.
Fast track to decision support
During our call, I asked about pre-requisites to make the platform work. The company claims that customers don't need the MicroStrategy warehouse but it certainly helps if there is an accessible DW where there is reasonable certainty that data is not only accurate but consistent. Data architects will argue over the degree of readiness among user bases but then customers can get quick wins when the new platform is layered on top of solutions like Outlook or Salesforce, systems that often stand independent of systems of record or systems of operation.
The company claims that it can get customers up and running inside 'days and weeks' rather than the months and years it can take to develop useful portals and dashboards. I don't doubt that's the case and especially where customers have already got solutions like those mentioned above, a solid DW foundation and visualization solutions like Qlik and Tableau in place. Where they have not made those investments, the choices about where and how to deploy this solution becomes a tad more difficult to prioritize.
Regardless, MicroStrategy is making a good effort to provide customers with multiple ways to get up and running. From the blurbs:
- Mobile dossiers — interactive books of analytics that render beautifully on smartphones and tablets;
- No code drag-and-drop — for branded custom apps that mobilize systems, processes, and applications; or
Ask the right question
But before getting to that point, I wonder whether customers are ready with the right questions to ask. In this context, what's needed at the boardroom level is very different from that at the operational coal face. So for example, I asked whether the system might provide a voice response to the field service question: 'Tell me the current account status for this customer.' The answer was an emphatic 'yes' so a thumbs up there. I also asked whether account data shown in Hypercards can be drilled into in order to get a greater level of context. Again, the answer is 'yes.' Viewed in those terms, MicroStrategy 2019 is very much an operational aid and could prove fertile ground for operational staff to work alongside IT as those Hypercards are developed.
Speak to me
The more interesting question comes around the new methods of deployment and specifically voice and vision. Voice is available today so you can speak to your chosen voice enabled device and get the information needed in fairly short order. How well that works in the real world is yet to be proven. Most commentators I know get excited about this method of information access and yes, my home has Alexa everywhere (a device in every room except the bathroom) but I have yet to find voice as an augmented means of information access as compelling as it might be. However, that should not deter customers from early experimentation. I can for instance readily see on-site operators using their smartphone to access voice enabled information rather than punching up apps through which they have to search for records. But then if all else fails, you can still fall back to the Hypercard motif.
An interesting side note to this is MicroStrategy's idea about an Enterprise Semantic Graph. This is described as:
The semantic graph layers system usage, location and telemetry data on top of enterprise data assets and systems–opening the way to a new class of AI-driven applications and experiences.
If you're lost already then don't worry. This is a complex topic on any day of the week and nowhere better is this illustrated than in the map MicroStrategy provides for context. It's the kind of thing that keeps consultants employed all day long.
There's a lot of meat in the MicroStrategy 2019 release and I have barely scratched the surface. It's clear that product development focus on simplicity of deployment coupled with an assessment of what operations staff will use have been carefully thought through in an effort to deliver an attractive solution that surfaces valuable information on an as-needed basis and on any device.
How well it works out in the real-world will be the determining factor. In that context, customers should tread carefully. Getting quick wins always matters and here, the references contained in the press release are both hopeful and aspirational. My main concern remains the same and comes in four parts:
- Do customers have clean or relatively clean data with which to work?
- Do customers have access to the right data sources?
- Is there alignment between real-time operational data and essential transactional systems (hint: the answer is almost certainly 'no.')
- Will customers know how to break out from surfacing essential data to data that provides the nuance for decision making?