The Internet has redefined information supply and demand. The dramatic increase in the supply of information has resulted in an insatiable demand for more—and often near–real-time–information. Information is one of the few enterprise assets in which an increase in supply translates into an increase in demand.
But the increase in information flow spawned by the Internet has not translated into a clear understanding of how best to analyze information. Organizations are beset by some fundamental problems: Where is the best source of information amid the many choices? Once the best source is found, how can the organization best utilize historical and current data to be predictive about the future? In essence, organizations see a constant flow of historical data that tells them what was, as well as current data that tells them what's happening right now—what is. The quantum leap, however, is to be able to use these resources to test "what if?" scenarios to be more accurate at predicting the future.
The World in Transition
Data warehousing and business intelligence technologies preceded the Internet revolution, so many organizations currently use their data warehouse as a comprehensive record of performance that is analyzed and reported with business intelligence technologies. But so far, the focus has been on answering questions related to "what was?"—providing tools to analyze and report historical performance.
The Internet has pressed organizations to answer near–real-time "what is?" questions. Monthly reports have been supplanted by weekly, daily, and increasingly up-to-the-minute reporting. If stock prices can be updated near–real time, why can't inventory levels, sales status, and other key business performance metrics?
The real value of knowing what was or even what is comes from translating this knowledge into insight and then taking action. Providing answers to the "what if?" question is the most important step in supporting business users because it is through an assessment of alternative scenarios that users can select from among alternative decisions to fine-tune their business and make the most of opportunities.
Today, the most widely used tool for calibrating decisions is the spreadsheet. While information now arrives online—answering both the "what was?" and "what is?" questions—much of the critical analysis required to formulate a decision is accomplished offline. With so much sophisticated technology—data warehousing, business intelligence, XML-based reporting systems—our industry has not bridged the gap between improved current knowledge and appropriate action.
To understand what is needed to bridge this gap, it is important to review the state of the industry.