Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Cliff Reeves: What happens when business data is liberated?

What happens when business data is liberated?

I often get asked where I think the opportunities are for innovators and investors. Well, business data is about to become accessible as never before. There is opportunity here for any innovator who know how to get the best out of the data historically locked away in business systems.

We are about see a transformation in business applications. Mary Jo Foley hints at this future in an eWeek article today, but I think there's a lot more to be said. Realtime dashboards (mashboards) will select and combine Information dynamically from rigid, structured systems like Oracle and Siebel. Situational applications (like email) will let us look up inventory, accept orders and submit bills, without ever seeing the SAP system that actually carries out the transaction. As a result, software innovation will centre on components that offer access and insight into business systems. IT's focus will be managing interfaces and metadata.

IT and by major ISVs are adopting web services and service-oriented architectures, and that's making the back-end systems accessible. Microsoft Office Smart Tags and the Information Bridge Framework (IBF) give business users the access they need. Accessibilty will get a major boost from Office 12 and the (virtually unnoticed) Sharepoint Business Data Catalog (BDC -- noted by Stefan Gossner here; with an insightful view from Eli Robillard, and another from Joris Poelmans).

Here are a couple of real-life examples of mashboards and situational apps:

A major oil company built a mashboard based on OSISoft's Realtime Performance Manager, RtPM). Using it, a refinery operations manager sees an alert on an overheating pump. Clicking on the alert (actually a symbol for the pump in a schematic of the whole refinery) he sees the real-time data (temperature, pressure, throughput, etc) as well as a list of situation-specific information located and presented dynamically -- such as maintenance records for the pump, people who can help (the authors of the maintenance records, people near the pump, the department responsible for that area of operations, etc). The operations manager can check the maintenance data for clues, send an SMS or IM to someone nearby (maybe ask them to go and kick the pump), or notify someone he's about to turn the pump off.

We developed this situational trading application as a proof of concept for the same oil company, using IBF. In it, an oil trader receives an email in Outlook with an order for December delivery of 100,000 bbl of Brent Light Crude, conditional on a price ceiling. Outlook has recognized that "Brent Light Crude" is a company product type and subtly highlighted the words. In the background Outlook asked IBF to identify for the trader, all the company's back end systems that she can access for product-related transactions: checking prices or inventory, for example, or placing orders. The trader clicks on "Brent Light Crude" and from a series of options she selects "Pricing." IBF queries the back-end system (in this case a trading Exchange) and presents option prices for Brent Light Crude in a task pane alongside the email. The task pane includes additional options, such as "check inventiry" and "place order." The trader places the order and IBF extracts related information (such as purchaser) and initiates the the appropriate SAP transactions -- verifying credit, placing the order, initiating an invoice. The trader is presented with a pre-filled email (actually an Infopath form embedded in an email) that confirms the request, which she sends to the purchaser.

Not many commentators have picked up on this but, as Office meets ERP systems, it will democratize business intelligence in much the same way that desktop word processors democratised document preparation. This will put a premium on people and innovation that can provide easy (situational) access and insight. Email and portals are the likely situational applications and mashboards, and insight will be provide by innovators like Metapraxis (board-level insight into company performance), Tableau Software (data and relationshop visualization) and CXO Systems (business and IT visibility).

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