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Business intelligence first crawled from software’s primordial swamp 15 years ago and despite early promise and massive demand, never quite achieved its true potential. It was developed as a technology to serve one basic need. The need for business users to turn information into knowledge and understanding that would drive profitable business activity.

Over the years it has progressed at a glacial pace through various stages of evolution from data warehousing, management information systems, online analytics to the latest manifestation of dashboards and scorecards. Without exception these systems all promised an understanding and insight that, for the business user, never materialised.

The fundamental problem is that the complexity and rawness of the reporting mechanisms means only highly specialist analysts can interpret them, preventing real business users from gaining any direct benefit. The frustration this has caused at the coalface of business is legendary, not to mention the missed business opportunities for growing profits.

But all this is changing with the advent and population of technologies like the ‘dashboard’ that finally empower business users with the tools to visualise, manipulate and understand the data. Although this breakthrough has been revolutionary, and has moved the whole sector forward light years, dashboards still don’t provide a deep and profound understanding of business information. After all this time, an evolutionary eternity in software years, dashboards still don’t offer a flexible and integrated ‘what-if’ tool to support planning, forecasting and simulation of situations.

Now, on the horizon, there has appeared a possible answer to ‘what if’. Interactive charting. A pioneering new breed of business intelligence applications that look as though they may finally meet that age old business need for business intelligence. And I do mean ‘intelligence’, not just ‘information’.

It is the ability of interactive charting to explore and interrogate information that allows a true understanding of the data and is critical for business users to make key decisions. Manipulation of the data empowers users to immediately see the projections of their decisions and gain a true understanding of the impact of possible decisions. Moreover, users of interactive charting are able to change their decisions and through simulation see the impact of this without direct risk to the business.

Interactive charting is still a young concept and has only recently become a practical option for many applications. It was the introduction of Flash as a standard browser component and its extension into Flex2 that has allowed the development of enterprise capable data visualisation tools.

Business, rightly sceptical of yet another business intelligence application heralded as the answer to all their problems, is now starting to take notice and recognise that this technology can provide real bottom-line benefit and this will drive the further development. From advertising through to production, understanding the data provided by diverse systems is critical to maximising the benefit. For instance, what impact would delaying the delivery and therefore payment on a large shipment of stock have on cashflow? Or what mix of investment funds will help you achieve your client’s pension goals?

Interactive charting can also be an extremely efficient selling tool. Take employee benefits management as an example. Using interactive charting you would be able to see, given an array of factors, what mix of benefits would best suit a specific budget for different numbers of staff given different structures.

In terms of visualising data, interactive charting has the potential to provide a huge range of practical functionality from zooming, filtering to charting and changing. Interactive charting isn’t risk free however. It takes the right mix of technologies to ensure that what is done today isn’t out of date tomorrow. Flex2, was developed as a direct response to companies reliant on technologies like Flash that just aren’t enterprise capable.

And it is precisely this clever mix of modern technologies that is allowing us now to deliver interactive charting solutions as quickly as traditional business intelligence systems.

Two of the most important features of interactive charting are usability and accessibility and are commonly over looked by technology companies, except for Google which consistently over delivers on this front. In particular, it is usability that provides the interface and allows the business user to operate, understand and control these powerful tools. Crucially, interactive charting tools are also situation specific and must be tailored to suit the specific needs of individual companies or for an industry.

So, well into its second decade, business intelligence is finally coming of age with the evolution of interactive charting. The demand has always been there, the technology just wasn’t enterprise capable. Now the technology is right and business is waiting. The question is, can interactive charting deliver what it promises, or is this another false dawn?


Stirland Martin
t. 0131 514 4000

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