My day job involves implementing Business Intelligence (BI) solutions which, as I have said before, is simply about giving people the information they need to do their jobs. I’m always interested in learning about new ways of achieving that aim and that is my motivation for writing blog entries that are not concerned with SQL or SQL Server per se.
Implementing BI systems usually involves hacking together a bunch third party products with some in-house “glue” and delivering information using some shiny, expensive web-based front-end tool; the list of vendors that supply such tools is big and ever-growing. No doubt these tools have their place and of late I have started to wonder whether they can be supplemented with different ways of delivering information.
The problem I have with these separate web-based tools is exactly that – they are separate web-based tools. What’s the problem with that you might ask? I’ll explain! They force the information worker to go somewhere unfamiliar in order to get the information they need to do their jobs. Would it not be better if we could deliver information into the tools that those information workers are already using and not force them to go somewhere else?
I look at the rise of blogging over recent years and I realise that what made them popular is that people can subscribe to RSS feeds and have information pushed to them in their tool of choice rather than them having to go and find the information for themselves in a tool that has been foisted upon them. Would it not be a good idea to adopt the principle of subscription for the benefit of delivering BI information as well? I think it would and in the rest of this blog entry I’ll outline such a scenario where the power of subscription could be used to enhance the delivery of information to information workers.
Typical questions that information workers ask might be:
- What are my year-on-year sales figures?
- What was my footfall yesterday?
- How many widgets have I sold so far today?
Each of those questions includes a time element and that shouldn’t surprise us, any BI system that I have worked on includes the dimension of time. Now, what do people use to view and organise their time-oriented information? Its not a trick question, they use a calendar and in the enterprise space more often than not that calendar is managed using Outlook.
Given then that information workers are already looking at their calendar in Outlook anyway would it not make sense then to deliver information into that same calendar? Of course it would. Calendars are a great way of visualising information such as sales figures. Observe:
Just in this single screenshot I have managed to convey a multitude of information. The information worker can see, at a glance, information about hourly/daily/weekly/monthly sales and, moreover, he/she is viewing that information right inside the tool that they use every day. There is no effort on the part of him/her, the information just appears hour after hour, day after day. Taking the idea further, each one of those calendar items could be a mini-dashboard in its own right. Double-clicking on an item could show a plethora of other information about that time slot such as breaking the sales down per region or year-over-year comparisons. Perhaps the title could employ a sparkline? Loads of possibilities. The point is that calendars are a completely natural way to visualise information; we should make more use of them!
The real beauty of delivering information using calendars for us BI developers is that it should be so easy. In the case of Outlook we don’t need to write complicated VBA code that can go and manipulate a person’s calendar, simply publishing data in a format that Outlook can understand is sufficient and happily such formats already exist; iCalendar is the accepted format and the even more flexible xCalendar is hopefully on its way as well.
I’d like to make one last point and this one is with my SQL Server hat on. Reporting Services 2008 R2 introduced the ability to publish data as subscribable Atom feeds so it seems logical that it could also be a vehicle for delivering calendar feeds too. If you think this would be a good idea go and vote for it at Publish data as iCalendar feeds and please please please add some comments (especially if you vote it down).
Work smarter, not harder!