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The past few years have witnessed incredible innovation and investment in the ways companies collect, store, and analyze data. From big data to cloud business intelligence (BI) to digital marketing, data analytics has emerged as a super-hot industry.

But at another level, stories of businesses gaining true value and top-line financial improvement after implementing analytics software are few and far between. When it comes to how people actually use data, providers and businesses have developed some nasty habits.

The dumbing down of BI

The common view of the past five years is that users are stupid and that data needs to be spoon-fed to them via pretty pictures. In the same five years, a new generation of young business people — who have grown up with technology — have entered the workforce. Complexity doesn’t scare them off when there’s value to be had. While BI continues to serve a 1990s mentality, younger tech-savvy data folks have broken free of dated tools and have started to manipulate data in SQL. Clearly, the dumbing-down of BI is not the right approach for this new breed of data experts and data consumers.

A fixation on big data

Big data and the technologies that have grown up around it have created immense opportunity. There’s been insane progress and innovation in methods of collecting and managing terabytes of event data in data warehouses like Hadoop. But getting business data into the hands of end users in order to conduct analysis that leads to business insights hasn’t changed. In many ways, the industry has over-focused on the management of machine-generated event data, rather than delivering actual value from core business data.


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It’s time to strike a new balance: to join “big data” to business data in such a way that it serves the business — and doesn’t just grow a big data repository. New data discovery tools now enable analysts to create environments for front-line users, who don’t need technical expertise to visualize relatively simple sets of data. However, when users want to work complex inter-departmental information — or when they need to ensure the data they’re looking at is actually the official source of truth — they’re still left to legacy BI tools (Business Objects, Cognos, etc.). And we’re back to slow, cumbersome processes.

The same crap shoveled in the cloud

There’s also been a hope of “the cloud” as a universal solution. A host of new vendors have created complete BI and data warehousing stacks in the cloud. On the surface, these solutions are much simpler for IT to deploy, but underneath, they’re still implementing the same old traditional (and inflexible) approaches to data. Organizations are pushing their data into the cloud, only to find that issues around ETL, integration, and user adoption have moved upstream, with no improvement in time to insight. What needs to be simplified is the stack itself, not just where it lives.

We need to figure out ways that businesses can get real value out of data. Innovative companies like Palantir, Mixpanel, and New Relic have demonstrated there are major benefits to be had and that it’s worth the time and expense to realize those benefits. In Palantir’s case, the pinnacle of value may be if and when a country is going to be attacked by a terrorist. In BI’s case, we need to enable a similar mission-critical level of insight. Organizations need to better understand customer lifetime value, grasp how new business models are performing, and track what’s happening in every corner of the business. The end users, the decision-makers, need to have their hands on this data, in all its detail, in order to make the fastest and most profitable judgments possible.

Simple visualization is not enough. We’re moving from data discovery to data exploration, adding both power and simplicity to the hard work of driving results-oriented discoveries across the business value chain.

Frank Bien is chief executive of Looker, an inventive software company with a modern approach to data discovery and business intelligence. Frank has more than 20 years of experience in business intelligence, big data, analytics software, and data storage, with extensive experience in venture-backed software companies. Early to the big data craze, he’s held executive roles at EMC, Greenplum (Pivotal), Virsto (VMware), and Vignette.

Bien will speak with Anna Gordon, a data scientist at Mindjet who uses Looker, at VentureBeat’s DataBeat conference in San Francisco on May 19-20.

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