Social BI?

Business intelligence solutions should take a leaf out of Facebook's book.

Cor Winckler
By Cor Winckler, Technical director at PBT Group.
Johannesburg, 28 Nov 2011

By now, most people are painfully or blissfully aware of the impact that so-called 'social networks' have on people's lives. Networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MXit are dealt with in a social capacity in order to keep relating to other like-minded people, who are either following what users are doing, or are, in turn, telling the world what they are doing.

'Surfing' from one article to another would be as easy as following friends on Facebook.

Cor Winckler is technical director at PBT.

On top of this, these social networks - in a very clever way - offer a multitude of applications to entice people to interact with one another. As such, the medium drives people to discover new things, see connections they did not previously know existed, play games, find lost friends, etc - and it is well known how addictive it can become.

With this being said, there are even professional networks that operate in a very similar fashion. For example, Linked-In provides users with an identical type of functionality as Facebook, but in a more professional context. Users can stay connected with current and past colleagues, submit CVs and even recommend people online. In addition to this, Linked-In will provide users with context-sensitive banner adverts of upcoming events and relevant training or conferences, depending on users' particular interests, background, and experience. In fact, the more mature these network applications become, the more powerful they become.

Breaking news

In the centre of anyone's Facebook experience is the concept of a 'news feed'. The news feed on my profile displays postings of people, products or groups that I have shown an interest in, or registered for. Although this is still very passive, my reaction to the news feed might include commenting, writing an article of my own, or even 'sharing' an external Web site or result as something of interest to my acquaintances, which will then invoke responses in the form of comments - the cycle continues from one point of interest to another.

With the above in mind, many BI portals and dashboards work in a similar way; however, users do not necessarily push the paradigm to the extreme in comparison to social network applications. A registered user within a portal has certain privileges and rights to access specific BI content. Most portals allow for some interaction by means of sending results to other users for comment. On the other hand, multiple users can access the same content as well as create new artefacts to share or 'publish' to a wider group of users.

I believe the paradigm of a 'news feed' in business intelligence (BI) is very well suited to the culture being developed through social network applications, and can be effectively applied to the workplace.

In fact, research company Gartner* published a recent report highlighting social and contextual user experience as one of the Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2012. One advantage of such a mechanism is that it is open and visible in a semi-public way. This provides management with the opportunity to interact with the company as a whole (the 'public') in a 'closed' way, but without the overhead of meetings and scheduling of workshops. Another advantage is the fact that everyone is able to participate. Imagine everyone in a particular department having a 'news feed' discussion around a product experiencing poor sales among a category of products. The implementation of an 'open' BI forum will allow for a unique opportunity to gain insights from colleagues who may have an opinion or have had similar experiences, but never had an opportunity to contribute, which in turn will only enhance the business brand.

Technically, a 'news feed' can be used to communicate a plethora of related information. The feed can contain notifications around the availability of new reports, highlight technical issues, communicate trends, share good news, discuss aspects of the business that may be of concern, publish events, as well as co-ordinate and communicate numerous other factors.

Share and share alike

With the proper security in place, these discussions can be as public or as private as they need to be. Each aspect of the BI system(s) can have options to 'share' insights into the BI news feed - making it possible to obtain information from multiple sources, and perhaps even allow such shared insight to distinguish trends that would not otherwise be visible.

Different departments in the business can also contribute different kinds of information, but all visible on one vibrant feed that the entire company can subscribe to, and interact with. 'Surfing' from one article to another would be as easy as following friends on Facebook, without having to know exactly where it came from, but with the ability to click through into the detail - which in the BI system, would drop the user into a detailed report, cube, analysis and/or model.

In the Facebook world, providers of information are clamouring for the privilege to push their application, content or insights onto subscribers' news feeds. The BI world should work the same. Every aspect of the business that generates insights, reports or an analysis should want to share this with the people who might have an interest in this information or need it for their daily work activities.

The increasing need for wider communication and growth in prevalence of analytical decision support are driving collaborative BI, and there is certainly going to be more of this trend in the year to come - ultimately allowing for greater visibility, user interaction and greater value.

* “Top 10 technologies and trends that will be strategic for most organisations in 2012”, Gartner Symposium/ITxpo