Author Archive

Aug
24

The value of the SAP BusinessObjects Ecosystem

Ryan Goodman’s last post, Understanding BI4 Dashboards and XWIS, drew a couple of comments (here and there) expressing frustration that capabilities of third party extensions ought to be delivered as a native part of the SAP Business Objects product.

To my mind this is a glass-half-empty view of things. Although the BI4/XI3 platforms come with numerous connectivity options for Xcelsius, no software is ever 100% feature complete (that is what upgrades are all about), so inevitably there is room for people to dream up ways in which features could be better. The great thing about SAP BusinessObjects is that (through both their Crystal and BusinessObjects histories) they have had the foresight to make sure their products are open to third-party developers to extend and enhance their BI platform through an ecosystem of innovation. So the glass-is-half-full view is that rather than having to wait for SAP BusinessObjects to provide a particular feature in a future release there is a product which fills them today.

(As a side note, the nature of third-party extension means that this also follows Vishal Sikka’s vision of “innovation without disruption”, with extension products integrating seamlessly with existing versions of the platform.) As I mentioned in a recent post on BI standardization, this partner ecosystem is one of the key advantages of choosing a large BI platform vendor.

In one of the comments the concern was that customers have to spend more money on such partner extensions. Again this is a glass-half-empty view because, whilst extensions will usually come at a cost (third-parties have to make a living too) they will also usually be designed to provide a return on investment. Anything else is just too hard to sell, so using the right extensions should be a financial saving rather than a financial drain.

The other comment seemed a bit confusing, it started by asking “why are we looking for different products to try and integrate with one another” and ended up suggesting a jump to a completely different dashboarding environment, which would require much more integration effort with the core BI platform, than any well designed platform extension would need. This comment is doubly ironic as many platform extension products are specifically designed to add features which avoid the need to jump to new non-integrated environments.

Overall I would recommend you resist the urge to be indignant and reject third party tools because they “should have come in the box”, this is a classic instance of being “right rather than effective”, make full use of the power of the ecosystem around your BI platform, assess extensions on the ROI they generate for your current situation and only when you run out of options inside your ecosystem consider non-integrated tools outside it.

Donald MacCormick is the Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Antivia, an SAP® software solution partner, and creator of XWIS the Xcelsius-to-SAP BusinessObjects connectivity solution. In past years, he was a long term member of BusinessObjects and Crystal, and part of the team that brought Xcelsius into the BusinessObjects portfolio.

Jun
15

The Five “Unorthodox Principles for Dashboard Success”

Over the past several years, in my time at SAP BusinessObjects and more recently with Antivia, I’ve been privileged to witness many dashboard projects at many different organizations around the world. Looking back on these, I realized that aside from the mainstream Business Intelligence principles which most people talk about (e.g. involve the business users, make sure you have a high level sponsor, data quality matters, etc., etc.), there are also some rather less orthodox principles which help to deliver business benefit through dashboards.

These five “unorthodox principles for dashboard success” are :

  1. Definitions don’t always help
  2. Visuals matter
  3. Users always want more
  4. Beware of end-users and large data sets
  5. Knowing is nothing, doing is everything

And, they are explained in detail in a new Antivia eBook (registration required).

Together, the 5 principles provide a bit of a sideways look at the world of dashboards, and although they might seem a little tongue in cheek at times, each principle contains advice that I believe will genuinely help you to deliver dashboards more successfully and more valuably across your organization.

Donald MacCormick is the Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Antivia, an SAP® software solution partner, and creator of XWIS the Xcelsius-to-SAP BusinessObjects connectivity solution. In past years, he was a long term member of BusinessObjects and Crystal, and part of the team that brought Xcelsius into the BusinessObjects portfolio.

Apr
28

What are Dashboards really for?

Dashboards are for Action, Not Information!

Given how much has been said about Business Intelligence over the years, it is hard to imagine that someone could, within the 140 character constraint, use a single post on Twitter (I still can’t quite bring myself to say “tweet”) to impart real wisdom about BI, but a few weeks ago I saw something from Gartner analyst Andreas Bitterer which did exactly that. He wrote :

Ironically, the timestamp on the post was April 1st, but I very much hope that this was not meant as an April fool because it cuts right to the heart of what effective BI is all about.

Business is not about knowing, it is about doing.

A good business intelligence system should reflect this. Unfortunately, there is a large part of human nature which is reassured simply by knowing. This tends to spawn BI systems which help people feel that they are in control, rather than do anything useful to actually drive the organization forward.

So for EVERY report, spreadsheet, dashboard, query, visualization, or whatever other form your BI takes, I would encourage you to make sure that there is a clear line of sight from the information you are delivering, to an action someone is going to take to move your organization forward. If you can’t make this connection, I would question the business value being delivered.

This is particularly true in the world of dashboards.

Dashboards are too often limited to simply giving an overview of the current situation.

It helps people to know what is happening, but offers nothing to help them drive action. This misses a huge opportunity, as a well-designed dashboard should provide interactivity to allow its users to drill into the data to help them decide what to do next.

A sales dashboard that only indicates you are on track for the quarter is of very-limited value, one which simply tells you that you are behind plan is not much better, but one which allows you to find out, based on past evidence, which customers in which region are most likely to buy which products is a huge step forward. Now it is much easier to take immediate and effective action (regardless of whether you are behind plan or not).

So, if your dashboards are simply single-screen windows onto the current state of play, perhaps you should consider adding a little well thought out interactivity to better direct end-user activity.

Donald MacCormick is the Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Antivia, an SAP® software solution partner, and creator of XWIS the Xcelsius-to-SAP BusinessObjects connectivity solution. In past years, he was a long term member of BusinessObjects and Crystal, and part of the team that brought Xcelsius into the BusinessObjects portfolio.

Jan
13

No more QaaWS?

Xcelsius is one of the most innovative business products of the last decade and in combination with the BusinessObjects platform (both XI 3 and BI 4), it provides a world-class, market-leading, enterprise dashboarding solution which is delivering enormous value to thousands of organizations around the world. Given this, it is not surprising that on Twitter and in the blogs, there is a excitement building in Xcelsius circles about SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0 and Xcelsius 2011.

The focus is mainly on three new capabilities:

  1. The new embedded query creation capability (replacing QaaWS)
  2. The ability to bind these queries directly to components (rather than going through the spreadsheet)
  3. Built in “Query prompt Selector” controls.

As stated in the “What’s New” documentation for BI 4.0 these new features are “focused on improving productivity and direct enterprise data connectivity”. The $64,000 question is “are the productivity improvements they bring marginal or breakthrough?”

As anyone who has been involved in developing Xcelsius dashboards connected to server side data will know, the two key things which hamper productivity are:

  1. The need to manage multiple connections to the server
  2. The need to use many formulas to manage the data from these queries into the components based on end-user selection

These are also key drivers of total cost of ownership because the complexities they introduce to the initial development also, even more dramatically, affect the cost of ongoing support and maintenance.

Multiple Data Connections

The main reason for having multiple data connections is to get data from different hierarchical levels with each level (indeed each combination of levels from different dimensions) requiring a different query. So a dataset with just two hierarchal dimensions, each with three levels of hierarchy, would require 9 (3×3) different connections to get all possible levels of data. However, it goes beyond that, the need to also have “select distinct” queries to populate lists of values and a number of other auxiliary requirements, mean that most non-trivial connected dashboards typically require between 10 and 20 queries to serve the end user needs, even on a single dataset.

Spreadsheet formulas

With multiple datasets comes the need to manage which dataset drives which component in response to the end user selection. The formula engine of the embedded spreadsheet is an incredibly powerful and flexible method for doing this, however, as has been commented on so many times in the past, spreadsheet formulas are incredibly difficult to debug, document, and maintain. This is even more true when the use of complex formulas (e.g. ones using data manipulation functions such as VLOOKUP) is required.

If we combine these two together into an index of Xcelsius complexity it would look something like:

Xcelsius model data complexity = (100 * number of queries) + (10 * number of unique “complex” formulas) + (3 * number of unique simple formulas) + number or repeated formulas

(I have just pulled the factors here out of the air to illustrate the point, but would love to engage with others in the Xcelsius community on a standardization of a measure like the one above)

So the question is: “do the new query and binding capabilities of BI 4.0 reduce this (or any similar) complexity index ?”

Unfortunately, based on what I have seen so far, the answer is “no”. Although the new query capability “replaces” QaaWS, it looks to have pretty much the same level of query sophistication, i.e. fairly static, parameterized queries (although the new capability does add the ability to add static sorting), with no dynamic, hierarchy awareness. This means that it is unlikely that Xcelsius models ported to BI 4.0 would  be able to rescue the key complexity drivers of “number of connections” and “number of data manipulation formulas”.

This in turn minimizes the value of the other new features, because directly binding data from a query to a component and managing that query directly with a prompt selector is only really useful if the query returns all the data you need. Otherwise, you are still left with needing to manage the data through the spreadsheet which disqualifies the use of these new features.

That is not to say that there are no benefits to the new capabilities. They do make the whole process of initial query creation simpler, because you can do it all from within the Xcelsius environment and for simpler dashboards that have static  (albeit parameterized) data requirements the new direct binding and prompt selectors will prove to be a productivity boost. Additionally, they also make demos of data connectivity in Xcelsius much simpler!

If anyone feels differently, or even better, has an example of a real-world Xcelsius dashboard which is much simpler using the new features, I would love to hear about them. I would also love to hear any thoughts people have on the creation of a complexity measurement for Xcelsius dashboards.

Donald MacCormick is a board member and strategic advisor to Antivia, an SAP® software solution partner, and creator of XWIS the Xcelsius-to-SAP BusinessObjects connectivity solution. In past years, he was a long term member of BusinessObjects and Crystal, and part of the team that brought Xcelsius into the BusinessObjects portfolio.

Sep
23

Gauges and Globes – Highly effective, ineffective dashboards

In his article “The Slow Death of a Gauge,” Ryan Goodman makes a number of great points about the use of gauges in dashboards and he is absolutely correct, for many reasons, gauges are not a great way to display information in a dashboard and if you are using them you should look at some of Ryan’s recommendations for alternatives.

However, there is one thing which I think he underplays and that is, in his words, “the emotional effect that Xcelsius has on customers is amazing”. Having seen and given many demos of Xcelsius in my time, I completely agree, it is a technology which not only leaves people wide-eyed and open mouthed, but more often than not, it also leaves them wanting attractive, interactive dashboards filled with their information (and for what it is worth I deam convinced there is a strong, positive correlation between the seniority of an end-user and the power of this effect!). In short, they leave the demonstration significantly more engaged in BI than when they entered. Having seen this happen over and over again, I am convinced that this “Xcelsius engagement effect” is not only a critical value in the BI life-cycle, but also leads to the bizarre concept of the effective/ineffective dashboard.

The only way something can be effective and ineffective at the same time is to be effective for one purpose whilst being ineffective for a different purpose, and this is exactly what is at work here. Business Intelligence has two great challenges:

  1. Providing high-quality, timely, usable information and analysis to end-users
  2. Engaging end-users so they actually use this information and analysis once it is delivered

And sadly, just because you deliver 1) does not guarantee that 2) will automatically follow. In fact, sometimes the more effective something is at 2), the less effective it is at 1) and vice versa. A great example of this is the XGlobe component (free to download), which is definitely at the emotional/engagement end of the spectrum. I have yet to see anyone react poorly to it, people instinctively love it. I even heard a story about a senior executive who saw it at a morning seminar and all he could talk about back at the office in the afternoon was “the dashboard with the spinning globe in it”. However, I have yet to see it put to good use in a day-to-day, operational dashboard (any references to examples are very welcome). Try spinning the XGlobe below and see what you think.

Adding such blatant “eye-candy” to demo dashboards may seem like a classic “bait and switch” tactic, but trust me, it is highly effective at drawing end-users into the BI world and engaging them. The first “demo” dashboards you show them may not be useful, but they will love them. The ones you deliver in your proof of concept can be more real-world and as likely as not, after a few weeks of production use the users will be back begging you to remove the globes and gauges to free up screen space for more data, and at that point, they are engaged, the dashboards are theirs and adoption is much more likely to follow.

Having said all that, you have to be careful with engaging end-users emotionally like this. It dramatically increases the stakes, and expectations for a quick, comprehensive delivery are all the higher. You should also be aware, that as they learn more, users will inevitably change their minds about what they want. This will require a solid infrastructure that enables delivery of robust, drillable, interactive data, quickly and easily through Xcelsius, in an easy to maintain way, but that is a topic for another day.

If this topic is of interest to you, I invite you to attend my presentation, “Visualization for Experts” at the SBOUC in Orlando, FL,  on Wednesday, October 06, 2010, 2:45PM – 3:45PM.

Donald MacCormick is a board member and strategic advisor to Antivia, an SAP® software solution partner, and creator of XWIS the Xcelsius-to-SAP BusinessObjects connectivity solution. In past years, he was a long term member of BusinessObjects and Crystal and part of the team that brought Xcelsius into the BusinessObjects portfolio.