Bio: Brad Peters is the CEO of Birst. Through his years of work helping to lead the Analytics group at Siebel Systems and his early work on on-demand software delivery, Brad became intensely aware of the limitations of current enterprise analytics offerings and the revolutionary power of the Software-as-a-Service model. Brad is excited to be bringing the power of advanced analytics to small and medium businesses that never had access before, as well as easing the reporting and analytics pain of managers everywhere. Brad received an M.S. in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley, where he was a National Science Foundation Fellow and a California Microelectronics Fellow. He received his MBA from Harvard Business School.

About Birst: Birst is a leader in agile business analytics. It offers a single place to manage all of a company’s analytics and the agility to answer questions that span departments, data sources, and deployments — across both public and private clouds. Birst gives users the fastest way to answer their most pressing business questions — and then all the ones they didn’t know to ask. At one-third the cost, time, and staff of traditional big BI, Birst brings the benefits of analytics and fact-based decision-making to a much broader audience.

NTT Com: What are the most overwhelming trends in business intelligence today?

Peters: There are a couple trends that are key. The first is the adoption of BI by a wider audience. It used to be that BI was a game for only the rich. Only the biggest companies with the most centralized, big IT could deliver and deploy it. Now, we see increased pressure to democratize access to information. People expect more because of things like the cloud and the Internet. Other organizations are starting to rebel against this closed mentality of BI and the demand is exploding. There is an expectation that BI and fact-based decision-making is more broadly disseminated through the organization. As a result, there need to be different ways of deploying it. Some of the old, monolithic models are just too heavy weight to have that broad appeal. So people are seeking newer ways to set up lighter weight solutions that are quicker to deploy and provide the answers that they need quickly.

 

 

NTT Com: What role does big data play in business intelligence trends?

Peters: Big data keeps coming up. We see it as an extension of a broader trend that has been going on for a very long time. Big data happens because there are more systems that are monitoring and automating activities, which has been growing for the last 30 years, faster and slower at various periods. At the advent of the Internet, a lot more stuff was being tracked than before. But even going back to the retail days, every item scanned over a grocery store counter goes into a database. That’s pretty big data, and companies like Walmart have been looking at that for 15 or 20 years. The problem was that you needed to be Walmart to be able to look at stuff like that. Now you’re seeing more organizations of more modest size, or even subparts of a larger organization, generating large amounts of data. They need that same capability to analyze it.

NTT Com: Is the shift to cloud computing part of what’s opening up BI options for smaller companies?

Peters: Definitely the cloud is part of this. It is one of the enabling trends. We are seeing two things — increased demand and technical innovation. The two together are making it possible to deliver BI more broadly. Just 15 years ago, people had much less information available to them and often it was delivered through primitive reports from corporate IT. Now, with the Internet, people consume vastly more information themselves. Most information that is consumed digitally now is not through corporate IT. The fact that people can go into their online banking systems and see statements and trends of their financial performance has helped them become accustomed to having more information. This has completely changed business people’s expectations of what they should be able to see and has significantly increased their demand for analytics tools.

On the flip side, Moore’s law has slowed down in some respects, but the sophistication of systems and what you can do now in small packages has grown. I always use the analogy of Microsoft, Oracle and SAP being like the U.S. Steels of the world — big, giant mills that take millions of dollars to set up. Now you see the Nucors and the Mini Mills producing smaller, more agile sets with more highly refined processes to get stuff out more quickly and at a lower scale. If you don’t have to produce as much, you can do it much more quickly. You can find in just one package what you used to have to buy in six different places. The cloud makes that possible, but there are other ways to do that as well. Appliances, for instance, also make that possible. Basically, you are taking away a lot of the complexity of BI so that the actual process of deploying BI is simpler.

The old-world SAP, IBM and Microsoft, where you have to build a bunch of stuff yourself and make it really hard, is going away.

NTT Com: Are enterprises that already have a legacy BI system in place switching to these new, more nimble tools?

Peters: There is always the question of the cost vs. the benefit to switch. BI is about measuring your business process. If you go out and buy SAP or Oracle as an application, you will essentially adapt your business processes to the application. BI is the opposite. Your business process is what it is. It is how you differentiate yourself as a company. You can take two 100-year-old companies in the same industry, and how they manage themselves will be completely different. BI has to adapt to business, and business changes. The difference between BI and something like ERP is that BI needs lots of new things on a regular basis. So the question becomes, is it worthwhile to rip out something? A system may not as efficient as it could be, but it took a lot of work to get in there in the first place. Why would you do that when you have a backlog of 20 other things that you haven’t gotten to yet?

We see a lot of people recognizing that while their legacy systems aren’t great, they can get bigger bang for their buck by doing something completely new. They choose to focus on those areas first. There is so much space in BI. Eighty percent of the decisions that could be driven by facts today are not. BI is so under-penetrated that, if you have something that partially works, even if it’s painful, it makes sense to keep it and tackle a different BI problem.

NTT Com: Are companies aware that there is a lot more space for improvement in terms of facilitating fact-based decision making?

Peters: BI is a unique beast. As far as I’m aware, there has not been a year in the last 15 or 20 where BI has not grown. Every other software category has experienced growth and dips. But in a boom period, you need BI to help you compete better. In a recession period, you need BI to help you determine where to cut as efficiently as possible. Even in a recession, BI has grown about 10 percent or more each year for the last 15. Every year, more people are touched by it, more people see how BI helps answer one question and want to know how it can help answer four others. Now that the build-out of the operational systems is complete (nobody needs any more accounting systems), they want to do something interesting with all that data.

NTT Com: What sorts of decisions does BI enable?

Peters: BI is fundamental to business. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. The question is how you measure and how you use those measurements. A measurement by itself doesn’t tell you a whole lot. If I tell you the temperature is 152, what that means depends on which scale I’m using. If it’s Fahrenheit it’s going to be really hot, if it’s Kelvin it’s going to be really, really cold. You need to know what you are actually measuring and how it compares to best in class standards. BI is not designed necessarily to do the initial measurement, although it can help. In order to use measurements to manage, you need to make them comparable. How do you know what a house is worth? You look at all the houses nearby that are comparable. That’s what BI allows you to do. It allows you to take business processes and compare different measurements over time, among groups or among teams. That comparative aspect gives you perspective on the measurement so that you can assess goodness or badness. Then you can make decisions that change the way you manage your business.

NTT Com: How does Birst integrate with an enterprise’s existing business systems?

Peters: BI is a life cycle. It is essentially a factory of information: on the left-hand side you dump raw data in, and on the right-hand side various people are consuming synthesized versions of information to make decisions. That factory may not be pretty, but it’s an important process to move raw data through to manufacture data that allows you to make decisions. That factory has historically been like the steel example I gave — lots of different components in a giant chain that require a huge amount of infrastructure to get moving. Birst’s approach has been to keep the fundamental aspects of the factory the same while virtualizing it and making it a single package. We use the same types of technology as traditional BI — relational databases, SQL. We are compatible with the various things that people have on premise because BI cannot exist in isolation. The data is not generated by the BI tool; it is generated somewhere else. A lot of the technology we have built is to enable integration — how we get data out of other systems and how we get information back into existing infrastructure. A business user wants to see BI in context with other systems they are using. If you can have someone managing a sales process and looking at sales data at the same time, they can make the decision at the point of interaction. Our goal has been not to ask you to replace anything that you have, but to augment existing systems so that you get the full value of them.

NTT Com: It sounds easy. 

Peters: You want to make it as easy as possible. But with BI, because you don’t own the source data and every customer’s problem is different, it’s rarely trivial or easy. Anybody who claims that it is should be suspect from day one. BI is a process and it’s complex, but the value is enormous. If you can take the complexity and reduce it (you can’t ever eliminate it), people who have constrained budgets or staff can have access to these types of technologies.

NTT Com: How can we expect BI to change in the coming years?

Peters: I think BI is going to become more centered on the average person. It used to be reserved to the realm of technical experts. It is really valuable when you can give a normal person access to information that they can use. The great thing now is that you are seeing a bunch of innovations that fall under this bucket of taking complicated analytics and providing information normal people can use. Think about Google. There are unbelievable sets of algorithms and complexities behind the scenes and the front end is a simple text box. It is the absolute extreme of user enablement through simplification. BI is going through that right now. The old-world SAP, IBM and Microsoft, where you have to build a bunch of stuff yourself and make it really hard, is going away. We are seeing a number of newer companies taking different approaches to make data more accessible. This includes mobile technologies and user interfaces that allow novice business users to explore data. There is a lot of innovation just around a user’s interaction with data. Providing different ways that people can experience and browse data without having to understand the mechanics of it is where businesses will see the most benefit. We have a long way to go but we are seeing improvement. This is not your father’s BI anymore.

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