By Chris Bongard
19th November 2011

Add Tibco Spotfire to the long list of business intelligence (BI) and analytics vendors that have added collaborative features and capabilities over the last two years.

Tibco's Spotfire 4.0 release announced last week "expands the boundaries of analytics," the company's press release proclaims. How many times have I heard this yarn about making BI more collaborative? More than a dozen, I'm guessing, with a spate of announcements in the last few months alone.

The concept is to let practitioners share dashboards, reports and data visualizations, promote discussion and capture comments and interpretations from a variety of stakeholders. There's data and then there's insight, and real insight can be greatly improved by healthy debate among people with different skills and perspectives.

This all sounds reasonable, and according to our just-released "InformationWeek 2012 BI, Analytics and Information Management Research report," collaborative BI ranks fifth among 11 "leading-edge" business intelligence capabilities. Plenty of BI vendors see the demand.

Microsoft, for instance, has seen considerable success positioning SharePoint as a place to collaborate on BI as well as many other topics, and in 2010 it added PowerPivot for SharePoint as a way to share powerful in-memory analyses in that environment. SAP introduced StreamWork last year, a hybrid online-and-inside-the-firewall collaboration service that can be used to compare notes on BusinessObjects analyses. Also in 2010, IBM borrowed collaborative capabilities from its Lotus Connections software and embedded it into its Cognos 10 release. One of the earliest on this bandwagon was Lyzasoft, which was founded on the concept of collaborative BI in 2008.

Tibco is now squeezing on board, joining the likes of Actuate, Adaptive Planning, Birst, LogiXML, and QlikTech, and others that have added collaborative features in 2011. I'm not saying BI vendors shouldn't be adding these features, but as we learned at last week's Enterprise 2.0 Conference, it's hard enough for enterprises to figure out their general-purpose collaboration strategies, as they try to decide how to mimic the influence of social networks inside companies. SharePoint isn't going to easily operate as a social platform for most companies without help from other software, conclude analysts Tony Byrne of the Real Story Group and Rob Koplowitz at Forrester Research. Facebook and Google are likely to launch business social networks, says tech blogger Robert Scoble, which would confuse the collaboration market more.

If enterprises are wrestling with sort out these choices, are they really ready for another layer of collaborative tools around their BI? And what about collaborative tools proposed by supply chain management vendors, or talent management vendors, or performance management vendors, or customer relationship management vendors? Just how many tools and interfaces are you prepared to support? Continuity, usability, training and licensing efficiencies will surely suffer if you offer too many options.

To its credit, Tibco has tried to avoid a siloed approach by integrating with Microsoft SharePoint, as well as Tibco's own enterprise-focused Tibbr social networking option. The SharePoint part is a smart choice given that more than 100 million people are licensed to use that software, according to Microsoft stats. By letting users post Spotfire dashboards, reports and data visualizations alongside Word documents, spreadsheets and team-collaboration environments in SharePoint, Tibco is promoting what it calls contextual collaboration.

But when it comes to enterprise social networking, Tibco insists the capabilities built into SharePoint and Microsoft Outlook aren't adequate. That's where Tibco's Tibbr social platform comes in. Tibbr is aimed at supporting collaboration across multiple applications and environments, not just BI and analytics. These characteristics also apply to SharePoint and Outlook, in my book, but Tibco Spotfire's Lou Bajuk, senior director of product management, insists Tibbr "brings collaboration into one environment and ties into multiple systems more effectively than you can do with SharePoint."

Tibbr was released in 2009, and Tibco claims it has more than 40,000 individual users. The company couldn't come up with any customers using both Spotfire and Tibbr, but it did refer me to Spotfire customer Wildhorse Resources, a small, Texas-based oil and gas company that's considering using SharePoint and Tibbr together.

With just 70 employees, most of whom are on a single floor in an office building in Houston, Wildhorse doesn't have a big collaboration challenge today. But Steve Habachy, vice president of operations, says the firm is looking at SharePoint to provide a single place -- portal, content repository, he's not hung up on the term -- where all information about particular oil fields and wells can be accessed. That might include documents, spreadsheets, Spotfire analyses and so on. Tibbr, meanwhile, would provide a kind of corporate Facebook, a familiar and user-friendly interface with big advantages over email.

"Tone is hard to get across in e-mail and I think people are more comfortable when they communicate through a Facebook-type interface," Habachy explains. "You see a picture, the person is typically smiling, and people don't assume the worst and think people are being critical as they often do when you're communicating by email."

I'm guessing Wildhorse will soon find a lot of overlapping capabilities between SharePoint, Outlook, and Tibbr. Microsoft builds a lot of collaborative functionality -- including presence awareness, personal profiles, and Facebook-style social networking -- into the combination of SharePoint and Outlook.

Collaboration strategy goes well beyond BI and analytics, and business leaders have a lot of broad choices they're trying to figure out well before going after the niche needs. There may well be a place for BI-specific collaboration options, particularly when it gets down into details that can't be addressed by the general-purpose tools, such as drilling down into root-cause data analysis below the top-layer dashboards and reports. If it's free functionality that vendors are simply adding to their existing BI systems, so much the better. But even then, you have to watch out for collaborative featuress overlaps, and collaboration overload.

Source: Doug Henschen for InformationWeek

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