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March 26, 2016
By Garth D. Laird, CEO
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For many readers of this article, business intelligence (BI) will not be a core experience, and, in many cases, it has likely become a confusing, costly, and risky business exercise during or after the deployment of Microsoft Dynamics AX.
With a market that is red hot in BI, supported by the analysts saying it should be and is currently a CIO’s greatest focus (as surveyed), it becomes so easy for the BI industry to find ways to differentiate offerings. However, in doing so, some BI companies can sell capabilities that might not have any business value at all to Users and the issues they currently face. Now, such as all discussions around a market, there will be exceptions to the rule, but I am hoping to provide a little focus and some direction as to what is important in most cases and what to look out for.
One of the incredibly strong characteristics with Microsoft Dynamics AX as a solution is its flexibility. It is designed to support not only smaller businesses that have fairly discrete business practices, but also the largest of global organizations to manage across countries, currencies, and a multitude of business practices.
All of this now is currently available on-premises and soon in the cloud on Microsoft Azure with Microsoft Dynamics AX 7. Although this characteristic will ensure Microsoft Dynamics AX continues to grow and dominate, it has also allowed an open tide of BI vendors from every walk of life to claim capability in this ecosystem and to market their products as capable of supplying and supporting a consistent, continuous, and economically-viable solution.
What I intend to do through this article is simply provide a perspective to those who have (or are) investing in Microsoft Dynamics AX, explain the wider BI market and the various “waves” as we see it, look at the risk in terms of business continuity, and then relate that all back to the premise: Is it big data or lots of smaller data?
The BI Market
With analytics and data now being at the forefront of so much of what we do, BI is a fast-growing market and has experienced a massive growth in vendors. Some vendors have history back through the late ’80s and early ’90s, other no more than a couple of years, some with thousands of customers, some with no customers but big ideas and growth projections. We like to look at this in “waves”, and I am hoping this will help you as well. There are no conclusions, just observations.
After the growth of ERP in the mid to late ’80s, there were a number of enterprise BI vendors that found a great market servicing larger businesses and their needs. These vendors were the true pioneers of ERP BI and developed large, complex, and functionally-rich solutions to service their customers, many of whom were Fortune 500 caliber. More than 30 years later, these vendors (many of which have been acquired) have continued to re-invest by adding a vast array of solutions to their portfolios.
From the transformation of data to building the data relationships, from the requirement for reports, dashboards, and scorecards to the need for enterprise controls and self-service, and now recently the need for servicing a mobile User, these vendors now have a huge number of solutions that they offer all across varying technologies and architectures. However, with this diversity of time combined with this diversity of solutions comes massive risk for a User (maybe like you) who knows only too well the challenges around enterprise upgrades combined with the world’s steady march towards the cloud.
With these initial Wave 1 vendors being extremely focused and experienced in the true enterprise arena, many lower enterprise and mid-market Customers were left to consider what they could do to support the needs of their Users. At this point, which was early this century, two things happened: one being that most of these businesses took to building out their own BI consisting of great cost, risk and a continual re-work of applications due to staff turnover; and two, we saw the advent of the Wave 2 vendor being a new type of BI company that could provide a group of Users or a department with a quick, less expensive and politically easy solution to sell under the corporate radar to get a range of folks using a solution to solve their data needs.
Over the last five years, these vendors have had a very steep growth curve, and many are now publicly-listed organizations delivering departmental BI out to thousands of Customers. These Wave 2 vendors have feasted on the market’s need for data by providing good solutions that are very visual to those who have operational budgets and can invest quickly.
However, when relating this back to the Microsoft Dynamics AX marketplace, the hundreds of Customers that are using the ZAP solution have always been very clear: They want a single solution that can cover the needs of the CEO to the needs of the shop floor, they want this solution to provide an enterprise data warehouse where self-service Users using Microsoft Excel to corporate Users utilizing web portals and embedded BI can all pull from the same enterprise data store, and finally, they want a solution that can be used on a seamless mobile platform.
Although the Wave 2 vendors have satisfied the need for self-service, they have not at all satisfied the CIOs’ and CFOs’ needs for a BI solution that integrates to the business, and one that builds on the returns that the C-level needs to justify the expense of after the distraction of a major ERP introduction. Having a range of Wave 2 self-service BI tools in an enterprise has become a CIO’s nightmare as the controls implemented by an organizational-wide ERP deployment are totally lost, the ability for there to be “many versions of the truth” are abundant, and the ability to better manage the business to improve business insights are lost.
The major variation with Wave 3 from the previous two waves is that these vendors have (and will) align to the true needs of the 21st-century business, delivering solutions in a single architecture that manage all aspects of a BI deployment from the initial data to the rendering on a tablet. These solutions realize that analytical outcomes hold the value, not the plumbing it takes to create it, and realize that corporate governance is aligned to BI deployment and the two cannot be separated. Wave 3 is all about closing the gap between the technology and the outcome, creating analytics that are aligned to industry and function out of the box, delivering a solution that reduces the consulting risk and one that creates outcomes quickly for the business that have rapid return to result and support the management team’s initial decision to invest.
In this 21st century, we are surrounded by downloadable applications in our everyday lives that deliver value from the first time we turn them on. However, in our enterprises, we have come to NOT expect that. It is true that the businesses we work in are often extremely complicated and often steeped in history, but the deployment of an excellent solution like Microsoft Dynamics AX should be the start of how a business can and should re-think complexity, and how a business can expect outcome-driven data to produce better insights.
As such, Wave 3 is all about understanding that paradigm change, understanding that the C-level must mitigate risk and must provide capability across the business from a single, trusted BI application that is a single modular modern solution at its technical core but also an industry-focused solution at its commercial core, supplying and providing the analytics out of the box that a business needs to truly achieve a return from its BI investment.
So Then—What Kind of Data?
Having explained the market as we see it over 30 years, I would like to be able to now refer back to the premise of this article—big data or lots of smaller data—and use this to really focus in on what is important to you as a User or prospective Customer of Microsoft Dynamics AX.
BI is a complex discipline, one that is vital to invest in if a company is to understand its market and its competitors. To look around at the marketplace, like many sectors, BI is caught up in jargon and buzzwords, much of which only serves to confuse those charged with making what is in most cases a serious investment for their business.
Big data is a great example as it relates to the subject matter for this article, BI for Microsoft Dynamics AX.
By definition, big data consists of “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.”
There needs to be no discussion that there are many Customers at a Fortune 500 level who have massive data-stores that are exploding exponentially every year and that for them the term big data is absolutely real. As I said above, there are always exceptions to the rule, and there will be Microsoft Dynamics AX Users looking to understand how they will manage massive data growth, especially in industries such as retail, much of which the Microsoft stack of technology handles perfectly.
However, if a vendor starts talking to you about big data, I would ask if they truly understand Microsoft Dynamics AX and Wave 3 and what is important and relevant to you as a User in 2015 and beyond. Having been involved in BI investments with literally hundreds of Microsoft Dynamics AX Users, globally and of all sizes, I can tell you that if you are reading this, you are more likely to be worrying about lots of disparate data than big data.
Microsoft Dynamics AX Users almost across the board are more likely to be struggling with data from legacy systems, data from forecasting, data from online feeds like currencies, and now data from Microsoft Dynamics AX. Although in many cases all of this can add up to a reasonable amount of data, what is really the focus for these Users is the integration and alignment of many data sources, not the management of one large one.
Examples of this User type are easy: a User with 20 years of legacy ERP data who requires this and Microsoft Dynamics AX to be reported on as one, a User with three external web feeds daily that requires this data to align to Microsoft Dynamics AX and then create reports with calculated capability, a User with four individual instances of Microsoft Dynamics AX, a User with Microsoft Dynamics GP, Microsoft Dynamics SL, and Salesforce, a Microsoft Dynamics AX User with specialty third party logistics engines, and a User with global budgeting and forecasting solutions that are apart from Microsoft Dynamics AX. This list can go on and on but is basically the story of most (if not all) Microsoft Dynamics AX Users. There seems to be a lot of data but in A LOT of places.
In summary, the BI road for Microsoft Dynamics AX Users has for a long time been a confusing one. There appears to be many vendors offering solutions that can apparently all do the job, and then there are the offers from others to build it all as “your” business because “Mr. Customer” is so different. I wrote an article back in 2013 discussing how crazy it would be for a business to build its own ERP in 2013 and applied the same concept to BI. Here we are two years later, and more and more Users are realizing that investing in consultants and tools when there are Wave 3 solutions already built to do what is needed is a massive risk to the business and to the executives who make those decisions.
After 30 to 40 years of the focus being on the implementation of ERP and the alignment of data processes as a result of this, we are entering an era where this is now changing to be all about the insights and all about the outcomes that management can use to better manage their business. In this incredibly competitive age for your business, BI may become a major differential between acceptable growth or not. The BI solution you invest in must be able to future-proof you across new versions of Microsoft Dynamics AX as well as support your need for more data, more analytics, and more Users as those who truly embrace data and BI will undoubtedly provide their business with the best chance of success.
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