Microsoft's BI Challenge, Round 2

Some internal movements at Redmond might have BI heavyweights on their toes.

The markets that Microsoft operates in are so dynamic -- pun intended -- that it's hard to take a position on something Microsoft is doing, good or bad, and have it still be relevant six or eight or 12 months later. Such is the case with business intelligence (BI). While many of the issues I've discussed before remain unresolved, so much has changed in the past year that it's worth revisiting the same question: Can Microsoft engineer a shift in its thinking about BI that puts the company into the power position it deserves?

The answer is yes, Microsoft can. But will Microsoft actually do so? With the second annual Microsoft Business Intelligence Conference scheduled to be held in Seattle this month, chances are that we'll soon know whether we'll be seeing more of the same in BI or getting some inkling of an exciting new direction.

Real-World Solutions
When last we left off, the intrepid BI group at Microsoft was grappling with a problem that's bedeviled the entire BI industry for the last decade or two: how to get BI out of the mire of tools and speeds and feeds and elevate it to a much holier (and more useful and profitable) position as a solution to real-world business problems.

At last year's BI conference, it was obvious that some partners understood the notion that BI is really an extension of business process, and exciting products on the show floor highlighted good examples of a growing partner-led shift away from tools and toward business solutions. But Microsoft's BI execs were still talking like BI was all about cool technology. The disconnect between what Microsoft was offering and what many of its customers wanted was cavernous, to say the least.

Meanwhile, since that last conference, two rather extraordinary events have thrust the issue of tools vs. solutions to the forefront of the market: SAP bought BI tools vendor Business Objects, and IBM bought BI tools vendor Cognos. These acquisitions were made with one important goal in mind: Marry the business process-poor tools of Business Objects and Cognos to the tools-poor business processes of SAP and IBM's consulting arm, Global Services. In other words, put together a set of offerings that function as solutions to real-world business problems.

One other event -- less extraordinary in scope but perhaps more extraordinary in terms of Microsoft's position in the BI market -- also took place last year. A full six months before SAP's blockbuster acquisition of Business Objects, right in the middle of Microsoft's first BI conference, SAP announced it was buying Gold Certified Partner OutlookSoft, a financial-planning solutions company. It was an in-your-face move: SAP was signaling that it was ready, willing and able to do with Microsoft's own partners what Microsoft itself was not: put the "business" in "business intelligence."

Getting the Message
To be fair, Microsoft needs to tread carefully so as not to muck up a channel that, at least in some corners, is doing what the market wants with respect to building and delivering business-class solutions. And there are some indications that Microsoft is getting the message: The agenda for this month's BI conference includes 11 sessions focused on business value, serving as evidence of a growing understanding that business value is just what customers want.

But Microsoft BI still has a long way to go: The business-value track is the event's second-smallest track (behind the partner track, which has just three sessions).

The other thing that's happened in the past year is that Stephen Elop has replaced Jeff Raikes as president of the Microsoft Business Division. That top-level transition comes with the hope that a change in strategy will be forthcoming as well. Not much of a shift was evident in Elop's debut keynote address at last summer's Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, but that could change by the time he speaks at the BI conference this month. In fact, we might actually hear something new and different about how Microsoft plans to tackle the extraordinary opportunity in business intelligence that, so far, the company's just been squandering.

About the Author

Joshua Greenbaum ([email protected]) is founder and principal of Berkeley, Calif.-based Enterprise Applications Consulting.