With both its business intelligence and customer relationship management strategies, Microsoft is attempting to make its Office desktop productivity suite the Swiss Army knife of enterprise applications.
On the face of it this seems to make a lot of sense because it provides a familiar way for users to get information into and out of the business intelligence and CRM applications.
Any CRM system is naturally going to bring into play all Office applications, whether it is Excel spreadsheets for reports and analysis, Word for correspondence, Outlook for communicating with customers, or PowerPoint for marketing presentations.
It should be just as easy to move raw data out of Excel spreadsheets into business intelligence or CRM applications. It should be equally easy to extract relevant data from Word documents, whether it is customer addresses, order tallies, part numbers or anything that could serve as fodder for compilation and analysis in BI and CRM applications.
But this doesnt seem like the most efficient or elegant way to provide a set of integrated business management tools. It perpetuates an expanding layer of complexity that requires a costly investment in applications and servers.
Microsofts approach with the advent of Office 12 will require a heavy reinvestment in new software—servers and applications—that wont necessarily give users quick access to cost-effective BI and CRM capabilities.
Users would be much better served by a simpler, more elegant solution in which the data and analysis applications are close at hand, little more than applets or widgets that allow users to compile and display data in charts and graphs.
Most of the software business is still focused on how much software it can sell at prices customers will tolerate. The industry would sell software by the pound if it could weigh it. Customers would rather have something fast, compact, simple and easy to learn and pay a fee that resembles the value the software delivers to the business.
Microsoft says one of its goals is to make business intelligence more pervasive inside organizations because currently only about 20 percent of business users can benefit from using it. Its also true that most of current-generation BI products are big, bulky and expensive systems that require a lot of effort to get a significant return on investments.
But the Microsoft solution is looking just as big, bulky, expensive and complex and wont necessarily make sophisticated business intelligence pervasive in enterprises large and small because it is the most elegant solution on the market. It is counting on its ability to persuade at least a substantial fraction of the 500 million business people it claims are using the Office applications to implement its business intelligence tools.
That represents a captive audience that Microsoft is counting on to upgrade to Office 12 and spend more to implement additional BI data management components such as SQL Server, SQL Server Analysis Services, SQL Server Reporting Services and the SharePoint Portal Server.
Microsoft has said that it will introduce a new round of server products with the release of Office 12 due in the second half of 2006 that will provide even more sales and application integration opportunities.
CRM is already much more pervasive in that most organizations already have some kind of computer tools in place to support sales, marketing and communicating with customers. And much of these are basic applications developed in-house using Microsoft Office spreadsheets, Word documents and PowerPoint presentations.
What might really help make business intelligence more pervasive is if enterprises had ready access to secure, on-demand BI tools where users could quickly run a wide range of analysis routines without having to worry about that massive upfront cost of acquiring, building and implementing BI tools running on top of a variety of specialized servers or data warehouses.
IT and line-of-business executives might be appalled at the idea of moving proprietary market data offsite to a hosted application service. But if enterprises have gotten used to storing and processing the CRM data offsite, then it cant be that huge a leap to start running business intelligence applications offsite.
Moving from on-demand CRM to on-demand business intelligence is a natural progression because all that good customer service data is just a mother lode of raw information just waiting to be mined by business intelligence tools.
On-demand CRM service providers have already made some tentative steps in this direction, and it is a business opportunity that wont lie fallow for long.
Once it catches on, it will be a strong alternative to Microsofts Swiss Army knife approach of integrating Office with BI and CRM functions.
John Pallatto is a veteran journalist in the field of enterprise software and Internet technology. He can be reached at [email protected]