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Businesses produce tons of data on a daily basis. Making sense of that information is no small feat.

Unlike many corporate executives, Jan-Willem Beldman says he doesn’t have a problem with the vision thing. A team leader at Mentor Graphics Corp., a computer hardware and software design company, Beldman can quickly pinpoint up-to-the-minute financial forecasts, peruse regional sales results, or view employee-performance statistics. And he does all this with just a few taps on a keyboard.

Beldman has lots of company. A growing number of corporate managers are turning to business-intelligence (BI) programs to help make sense of the reams of information produced by their ERP (enterprise resource planning), CRM (customer relationship management), and planning applications. According to one survey, about a third of corporations now use a dashboard. “Traditionally, ERP systems have been really bad at reporting,” Beldman explains. “They’re great transaction systems, but to get really flexible reporting out of one, you have to mix it with information from other sources.”

The BI system at Wilsonville, Oregon-based Mentor is typical of many now on the market. Called Essbase (from Hyperion Software), the multidimensional database engine funnels numbers from the company’s key business applications into several data cubes. Managers are then able to pull up specific information from them, thereby gaining an aerial view of what’s going on at the company. Just as important, the process takes only seconds. Says Beldman: “It’s analysis at the speed of thought.”

That’s been the lure since the phrase business intelligence first came into vogue in the mid-1990s. But the early promise of BI software far outstripped reality. Cobbling together ad hoc queries usually required the programming chops of Linus Thorvald — and the patience of Linus Van Pelt. Some later programs skirted that problem by prepopulating screens with a limited — and limiting — number of key performance indicators (KPIs). Even then, the bare-bones reports were usually only available at specified times, often weeks apart. That hardly qualifies as real-time reporting. But with recent gains in data archiving — and with much faster data retrieval — BI products are now spitting out up-to-the minute reports and nearly instantaneous responses to queries.

It’s about time, says Guillermo Kopp, vice president of cross-industries research at TowerGroup, a Needham, Massachusetts-based financial technology research firm. “Nobody is happy with end-of-the-day, end-of-the-month reporting any more.”

Release the Hounds

This general sense of unhappiness has been fueled in large part by advances in Internet searches. In an era when Google or Yahoo can rapidly and reliably find all manner of arcane information scattered across cyberspace, users have come to expect the same of BI products. And, in fact, it’s somewhat surprising that it has taken BI vendors so long to catch up with their consumer-driven competitors. Experts say the tardiness can mostly be attributed to the nature of search technology and the complicated — and diverse — structure of business data.

Indeed, Google’s recently released Desktop Search for Enterprise, which enables a business user to find files, E-mail, and pictures stored on a personal computer, isn’t suitable for sophisticated financial searches. Any mainstream keyword search engine lacks the guides and pointers — the intelligence, if you will — to accurately interpret complex queries aimed at unearthing relevant transaction data. What’s more, the new breed of hard-drive hounds — including Google’s Desktop Search and Microsoft’s MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search — do not produce comparative sets of figures or generate graphical representations of key performance markers.

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