Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 14 seconds

A few years ago, companies that included Thomson, CCH and Sage started marketing products that let users perform scenarios within financial statements. They could change entries in profit and loss statements or on balance sheets and the numbers would ripple through the system. They could also calculate ratios as part of providing clients insight into their businesses. These tools are part of business intelligence, although by no means all of the capabilities that fall under that often-abused term.

Results were not what anyone had hoped. Despite efforts to make CPAs more forward looking, many are still more comfortable with historical data. The tools also lent themselves to those practitioners that were comfortable with marketing, which does not apply to a lot of accountants. But business intelligence rears its head every so often as the kind of information companies should want, but for which they do not seem to turn to software designed for that purpose with great regularity.

The topic arose because of a conversation with Gary Boddington, the founder of Alchemex, a company acquired last year by Sage. Alchemex makes business intelligence tools that work with Excel, which seems to be the only approach that has any hope of getting the attention of the financial users who live by Excel. And the question under discussion was how can business intelligence assume the importance with users that software publishers have believed that it should.

I would abandon the term business intelligence because it is so tainted by now and turn to something such as business information or business data management. And i would also challenge what I believe is the underlying assumption of BI. And that assumption is that decision makers use objective data to make logical decisions. Decision makers use intuition, emotion and recommendations from peers. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach. What has to change is how BI fits into that real-life environment as one input, not necessary the most important input.

Even if my analysis is wrong, I believe there is nothing wrong in stating that software vendors must take into account how decisions are made for BI to have the impact they want.

Whether typical CPA firms have the role the vendors once thought they might have is another question as is the question of how vendors can convince resellers to push the products. But I believe one key is that BI must be supported by professionals with knowledge of particular markets, call it vertical market expertise or domain knowledge.

Because ultimately, what many BI tools supply is pretty simple math. A high school student can be taught to calculate ratios. And it's no problem to explain to a company that its inventory turns, for example, have decreased and the company should take steps to increase them. What makes BI relevant is the ability to explain to different kinds of businesses just how to do that.

This may be the reason that BI has often been the domain of larger companies. It takes expertise to apply it to real-life steps that can be taken in improving day-to-day operations, not just to have exercise with a calculator.

Bob Scott
Bob Scott has provided information to the tax and accounting community since 1991, first as technology editor of Accounting Today, and from 1997 through 2009 as editor of its sister publication, Accounting Technology. He is known throughout the industry for his depth of knowledge and for his high journalistic standards.  Scott has made frequent appearances as a speaker, moderator and panelist and events serving tax and accounting professionals. He  has a strong background in computer journalism as an editor with two former trade publications, Computer+Software News and MIS Week and spent several years with weekly and daily newspapers in Morris County New Jersey prior to that.  A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in journalism, Bob is a native of Madison, Ind
Last modified on Sunday, 02 June 2013
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