Business intelligence (BI) has always had a “pipeline” orientation—in other words, a primary focus on the one-way flow of data, information, and insights from “sources” (e.g, your customer relationship management systems, enterprise data warehouses, and subject-area data marts) to “consumers” (e.g., you). 

But we all know that this pipeline orientation—also known as “simplex” information transfer—doesn’t describe the predominant flow of mission-critical intelligence in our lives. Quite often, the most important insights are those that issue from other people’s heads, not from our companies’ data marts. Many real-world intelligence flows are full-duplex, many-to-many, and person-to-person in orientation. This fundamental truth will continue to drive the spread of “social” architectures in core BI and advanced analytics.

Forrester has recently seen a growing interest in “social BI,” and in fact my colleagues and I recently social-blogged our collective thinking on this topic. Since then, we’ve seen vendor announcements, such as TIBCO Silver Spotfire, that invoke this new industry catchphrase. We’ve seen considerable discussion within the analyst community generally about this release and about what this and other vendors are doing in social BI. In this present post, I’ll be repeating some of the points from my inputs to the earlier Forrester blog, but am extending my observations to call out a broader emerging context.

For starters, social BI is no fad, nor is it an entirely new phenomenon.  As I pointed out more than 3 years ago in the pages of Network World, many BI vendors had already added collaboration functionality such as instant messaging, human workflows, and shared analytic project libraries to their solutions. The trend has deepened since that time, as evidenced by the steady convergence of social networking into BI product architectures, as well as by the demonstration of shared discovery and visualization features in analytics initiatives such as IBM’s ManyEyes project.  Yours truly alluded to what we now call social BI when I stated, way back then, that we should “expect to see such interactive Web 2.0 technologies as AJAX, blogs and wikis revolutionize the BI experience.”

As I noted in the recent Forrester multi-analyst blogpost, the move toward fully social BI implies all of that plus the following features, which, we predict, will find their way over the next few years into a wide range of commercial BI solutions: 

  • Social BI interactivity: We’ll see growing incorporation of Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and kindred models of user-centric development, publishing, and subscription into the heart of the interactive BI user experience. Accelerating the trend toward pervasive BI, we’ll see more solutions that enable reports, dashboards, charts, and other BI views to be embedded in social media. You can regard today’s collaborative BI mashup offerings, discussed in my Forrester report from a year ago, as pointing the way toward this style of self-service team-based development, as do BI solutions from Lyzasoft, Tableau, JackBe, and other social-focused vendors.
  • Social BI content marts: We can expect to see more BI solutions that support extension and/or replacement of traditional data marts with vast user-populated pools of complex, mashed-up, subject-oriented analytic content and applications. It’s not inconceivable that what I’m calling “social marts” will incorporate and build on content repositories that many enterprises have built on platforms from today’s enterprise content management (ECM) vendors.
  • Social BI information integration: Users will be able to choose from a growing range of BI solutions that support discovery, capture, monitoring, mining, classification, and predictive analysis on growing streams of social media content, much of it coming in real-time from both public and private sources. Essentially, this is where advanced analytics features such as social media analytics, social media monitoring, and social network analysis, subject of another recent blogpost of mine, will converge into the growing social BI stack.

Pardon me for tooting my Nostradamus horn yet again, but I’d like to call attention to another long-range trend that I glimpsed then, and which the movement toward social BI shows is coming to pass. In 2007, I said “over the next several years, expect to see the BI, collaboration and knowledge management (KM) segments converge.” Some may have considered that a stretch, if not a bit far-fetched, considering that these are all large, well-established markets  providing solutions that many enterprises, to this day, deploy in separate siloes.  However, with the growing incorporation of social networking architectures in enterprise collaboration, content management, customer relationship management, and other tools, it’s only a matter of time before these market segments blur into a seamless cloud of social KM solutions.

As an enterprise IT professional, you’re probably watching all this with the usual combination of bated breath and healthy skepticism. Obviously, social BI is far from a mature marketplace. The industry is groping for a common approach toward which to evolve. BI vendors are still trying to get their collective heads around the vision of social BI. Just as important, vendors are, in their various ways, striving to differentiate through innovative new features that are aligned with the sorts of capabilities many of us enjoy through our personal dabblings in Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

As your current BI vendors roll such features into their products, you’ll probably start using them when you upgrade in the normal cycle. To the extent that you adopt small-scale BI solutions for particular business units, branches, or teams, those deployments might benefit from social BI that either supplements existing collaboration and KM tools—or eliminates the need to acquire those other, stovepipe solutions.

Social’s the thing, all right. Once you— and your BI vendor—-are ready to move toward a more social-oriented capability, it would make sense to socialize those plans with some significant others inside your company. Start with the people responsible for your company’s collaboration, KM, and ECM initiatives.