Opinion: Incoming intelligence

The phone rang one Saturday afternoon, and over the line came the kindly voice of a woman from MasterCard's fraud-detection unit. Was I aware that my card was currently making the rounds? "What kind of charges?" I asked, listening as she read off the itinerary of my credit card as it visited an overpriced hair salon, a pharmacy, a shoe store and a restaurant.

Sounds like the work of my daughter the impoverished student, I said, so don't have her arrested. She's got enough trouble coming when she explains that hair-salon charge to her father. When I spoke to the Little Shopper, she was blown away by how much I already knew about her spree. ("I can explain the hair thing! I got these amazing highlights! Do I really have to talk to Dad?")

Now, I don't know what application MasterCard's fraud-detection unit is using to nab possible crooks in near real time, but I'll bet it falls squarely into the business intelligence software realm. This broad category covers almost any product that helps companies transform data into meaningful information. Ferreting out fraudulent behavior is only one of the drivers behind the escalating commitment to BI projects across the IT landscape, as you'll see in this week's special report "The Future of BI".

Finding "one version of the truth" is a popular way to describe the desired result of using BI software. In reality, that rarely happens. The truth can be a moving target that depends not only on the data quality behind it but also on the people evaluating it for decision-making. As Mark Hall points out in his column "Doubtful BI", BI is better employed when it makes its users think harder, ask more pointed questions and develop new assumptions. "We have too much information available to us to drill down to reach a single answer for a BI problem," he contends.

Mani Shabrang, a technical leader at Dow Chemical, would no doubt agree. "We are drowning in information but are starving for knowledge," he says in our story about using text mining tools to make sense of unstructured data.

Analysts see fraud-detection software as one of the hottest growth areas in BI right now, poised to become "as critical to corporate governance as a password is for accessing a PC," says The Yankee Group's Matthew Kovar. This type of BI software is also helping companies comply with a long list of regulatory mandates. At Avery Dennison, for example, the director of internal audit uses transaction mining software to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act as well as to flag potential fraud.

The future of BI is easier summed up than dealt with: more people viewing more data in more detail. But as information becomes highly democratized and more data is revealed to employees via portals or dashboards, the challenges for IT managers will also scale up. The quality and security of the data will really matter, and user training needs will expand as these systems proliferate.

The most important and unpredictable element, however, will always be the human one -- what all those people peering into all those dashboards will do with the data they find there. And unfortunately for my daughter, caught in the act by a BI application, no amount of additional info will ever convince her father of the value in spending for those perfect highlights in that long blond hair.

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