Friday, January 04, 2008

Fitting QlikTech into the Business Intelligence Universe

I’ve been planning for about a month to write about the position of QlikTech in the larger market for business intelligence systems. The topic has come up twice in the past week, so I guess I should do it already.

First, some context. I’m using “business intelligence” in the broad sense of “how companies get information to run their businesses”. This encompasses everything from standard operational reports to dashboards to advanced data analysis. Since these are all important, you can think of business intelligence as providing a complete solution to a large but finite list of requirements.

For each item on the list, the answer will have two components: the tool used, and the person doing the work. That is, I’m assuming a single tool will not meet all needs, and that different tasks will be performed by different people. This all seems reasonable enough. It means that a complete solution will have multiple components.

It also means that you have to look at any single business intelligence tool in the context of other tools that are also available. A tool which seems impressive by itself may turn out to add little real value if its features are already available elsewhere. For example, a visualization engine is useless without a database. If the company already owns a database that also includes an equally-powerful visualization engine, then there’s no reason to buy the stand-alone visualization product. This is why vendors to expand their product functionality and why it is so hard for specialized systems to survive. It’s also why nobody buys desk calculators: everyone has a computer spreadsheet that does the same and more. But I digress.

Back to the notion of a complete solution. The “best” solution is the one that meets the complete set of requirements at the lowest cost. Here, “cost” is broadly defined to include not just money, but also time and quality. That is, a quicker answer is better than a slower one, and a quality answer is better than a poor one. “Quality” raises its own issues of definition, but let’s view this from the business manager’s perspective, in which case “quality” means something along the lines of “producing the information I really need”. Since understanding what’s “really needed” often takes several cycles of questions, answers, and more questions, a solution that speeds up the question-answer cycle is better. This means that solutions offering more power to end-users are inherently better (assuming the same cost and speed), since they let users ask and answer more questions without getting other people involved. And talking to yourself is always easier than talking to someone else: you’re always available, and rarely lose an argument.

In short: the way to evaluate a business intelligence solution is to build a complete list of requirements and then, for each requirement, look at what tool will meet it, who will use that tool, what the tool will cost; and how quickly the work will get done.

We can put cost aside for the moment, because the out-of-pocket expense of most business intelligence solutions is insignificant compared with the value of getting the information they provide. So even though cheaper is better and prices do vary widely, price shouldn’t be the determining factor unless all else is truly equal.

The remaining critieria are who will use the tool and how quickly the work will get done. These come down to pretty much the same thing, for the reasons already described: a tool that can be used by a business manager will give the quickest results. More grandly, think of a hierarchy of users: business managers; business analysts (staff members who report to the business managers); statisticians (specialized analysts who are typically part of a central service organization); and IT staff. Essentially, questions are asked by business managers, and work their way through the hierarchy until they get to somebody who can answer them. Who that person is depends on what tools each person can use. So, if the business manager can answer her own question with her own tools, it goes no further; if the business analyst can answer the question, he does and sends it back to his boss; if not, he asks for help from a statistician; and if the statistician can’t get the answer, she goes to the IT department for more data or processing.

Bear in mind that different users can do different things with the same tool. A business manager may be able to do use a spreadsheet only for basic calculations, while a business analyst may also know how to do complex formulas, graphics, pivot tables, macros, data imports and more. Similarly, the business analyst may be limited to simple SQL queries in a relational database, while the IT department has experts who can use that same relational database to create complex queries, do advanced reporting, load data, add new tables, set up recurring processes, and more.

Since a given tool does different things for different users, one way to assess a business intelligence product is to build a matrix showing which requirements each user type can meet with it. Whether a tool “meets” a requirement could be indicated by a binary measure (yes/no), or, preferably, by a utility score that shows how well the requirement is met. Results could be displayed in a bar chart with four columns, one for each user group, where the height of each bar represents the percentage of all requirements those users can meet with that tool. Tools that are easy but limited (e.g. Excel) would have short bars that get slightly taller as they move across the chart. Tools that are hard but powerful (e.g. SQL databases) would have low bars for business users and tall bars for technical ones. (This discussion cries out for pictures, but I haven’t figured out how to add them to this blog. Sorry.)

Things get even more interesting if you plot the charts for two tools on top of each other. Just sticking with Excel vs. SQL, the Excel bars would be higher than the SQL bars for business managers and analysts, and lower than the SQL bars for statisticians and IT staff. The over-all height of the bars would be higher for the statisticians and IT, since they can do more things in total. Generally this suggests that Excel would be of primary use to business managers and analysts, but pretty much redundant for the statisticians and IT staff.

Of course, in practice, statisticians and IT people still do use Excel, because there are some things it does better than SQL. This comes back to the matrices: if each cell has utility scores, comparing the scores for different tools would show which tool is better for each situation. The number of cells won by each tool could create a stacked bar chart showing the incremental value of each tool to each user group. (Yes, I did spend today creating graphs. Why do you ask?)

Now that we’ve come this far, it’s easy to see that assessing different combinations of tools is just a matter of combining their matrices. That is, you compare the matrices for all the tools in a given combination and identify the “winning” product in each cell. The number of cells won by each tool shows its incremental value. If you want to get really fancy, you can also consider how much each tool is better than the next-best alternative, and incorporate the incremental cost of deploying an additional tool.

Which, at long last, brings us back to QlikTech. I see four general classes of business intelligence tools: legacy systems (e.g. standard reports out of operational systems); relational databases (e.g. in a data warehouse); traditional business intelligence tools (e.g. Cognos or Business Objects; we’ll also add statistical tools like SAS); and Excel (where so much of the actual work gets done). Most companies already own at least one product in each category. This means you could build a single utility matrix, taking the highest score in each cell from all the existing systems. Then you would compare this to a matrix for QlikTech and find cells where the QlikView is higher. Count the number of those cells, highlight them in a stacked bar chart, and you have a nice visual of where QlikTech adds value.

If you actually did this, you’d probably find that QlikTech is most useful to business analysts. Business managers might benefit some from QlikView dashboards, but those aren’t all that different from other kinds of dashboards (although building them in QlikView is much easier). Statisticians and IT people already have powerful tools that do much of what QlikTech does, so they won’t see much benefit. (Again, it may be easier to do some things in QlikView, but the cost of learning a new tool will weigh against it.) The situation for business analysts is quite different: QlikTech lets them do many things that other tools do not. (To be clear: some other tools can do those things, but it takes more skill than the business analysts possess.)

This is very important because it means those functions can now be performed by the business analysts, instead of passed on to statisticians or IT. Remember that the definition of a “best” solution boils down to whatever solution meets business requirements closest to the business manager. By allowing business analysts to perform many functions that would otherwise be passed through to statisticians or IT, QlikTech generates a hugh improvement in total solution quality.

No comments: