This article was prompted to some extent by a discussion posted in the Enterprise Performance Management group on LinkedIn.com (the thread may be viewed here, but you will need to be both logged on to LinkedIn.com and a member of the group to view it).
The economic turmoil encompassing much of the world is certainly being felt in IT. As one of the largest areas of expenditure in an organisation, IT is always somewhere where it is tempting for those looking to make cuts to start. In many organisations, IT expenditure has been under pressure for many years as rising software costs have taken a larger chunk of overall expenditure. Replacement of obsolete hardware and software is also something that cannot be put off indefinitely and such work often further reduces the CIO’s room for manoeuvre. These factors tend to lead to either stagnant or reducing IT budgets. In some organisations, cuts are “democratically” spread across all areas of IT, but the more sophisticated operators will look to be selective. In this second type of organisation, it has been suggested that business intelligence (BI) may be one of the winners. This article explores this idea.
It is first of all important to realise that sometimes investment in BI is driven by a crisis. When things are going wrong, or have already gone wrong, then the instinctive reflex of CEOs is to want to know both what is happening and why. Often they will find that they do not have the tools in place to answer either of these questions and BI is the best way of addressing this need. In relation to the credit crunch, this type of BI investment can be thought of in the same way that greater focus was placed on control systems and internal auditing in the aftermath of the Enron and WorldCom debacles (they now seem a lifetime away don’t they?).
However, there are some things to be said against this. First, the current crisis is not within a single company, but across virtually all companies. Second, the factors behind the crisis are already apparent: a drying-up of commercial credit as banks do a 180° in their appetite for risk and seek to rebuild devastated balance sheets; and, proceeding from the first factor, a plunge in consumer and business confidence as individuals and companies face – at best – straitened financial circumstances and – at worst – insolvency. Of course the combination of these issues leads to a vicious circle. Good BI is not necessary to qualify these already crystal-clear problems.
Despite the systemic nature of the challenges, companies that have already made investments in BI will have tools at their disposal that are pertinent to navigating some aspects of the current financial difficulties. This should place them at a competitive advantage to organisations that have not been so foresighted. As ever corporate discomfort will not be spread evenly across the board. Whilst all companies will suffer, the strongest ones will suffer least. These organisations may even be able to take advantage of their competitors’ travails to expand market share and attract disaffected customers. One thing that will undoubtedly be a feature of the strongest companies is good BI. These observations may be enough to drive continued support of BI in organisations that already value it, they may even lead to a mild expansion in facilities. But what can we say about those companies that have not already invested in BI?
It is undeniable that creating good BI from scratch is both a lengthy and costly process. I would argue that – in normal circumstances – the payback is extremely positive; indeed BI is one of the highest-yielding types of IT projects. The challenge is that the financial crisis is biting deeply now and BI’s benefits are in the future; at least a year away for most organisations (though it is feasible that some interim solutions to the most pressing questions could be produced more rapidly). Is this a time at which senior management is likely to be receptive to an investment with a medium-to-long term payback, no matter how large that payback might be? The answer to this question probably lies in the degree to which the external crisis has been reflected in an internal crisis. If a company is fighting for its survival day-to-day, then existing BI will be invaluable, but BI with a delivery date in 12 months time is not likely to get very far up the priority list; paying suppliers and staff in the next few days is a more pressing issue.
So my opinion is that there is scope for expanded BI expenditure in those companies that have already made investments, this may be related to specific tools to help take advantage of customers deserting distressed competitors. There is also scope for BI projects to be initiated in companies that are suffering, but whose business is essentially sound. In these types of businesses decisions can still be taken with an eye on the medium term. However a balancing factor is that companies whose future is in the balance are very unlikely to see BI as a major contributor to any short-term turn-around strategy. In these organisations, slashing all IT expenditure is more likely to be the prevailing wisdom.
In aggregate it is difficult to work out the impact of these different trends on the BI market. This will depend sensitively on the triage of companies into the groups identified above. My unscientific sense is that BI may fare marginally better than many other elements of IT, but the overall outlook is negative in the short-term. However, for those companies that survive the down-turn and have not already put a BI strategy in place, it may well be that the area will see renewed interest once the economy reaches calmer waters. This realisation may well arise from noticing how much better those companies with good BI have fared in difficult market conditions.
Since writing this article, I have penned some others in the same area and also found a number of interesting pieces elsewhere on the web. In response to this I have created a WordPress category “BI and the Economic Crisis“, which will hopefully provide a hub for this important area.