Q&A: what you need to know about Operational Intelligence

- Technology - Feb 20, 2017

What is Operational Intelligence? For Simon Weaver at digital mapping and analytics company Esri UK, OI is a more ‘active’ version of Business Intelligence.

The issue that many company executives face is that they’re often told about the importance and the value of data, but there is little guidance on how they are supposed to get their teams to leverage this information. With this in mind, we asked Weaver a few questions on the topic. 

What is the difference between Business Intelligence (BI) and Operational Intelligence (OI)?

Business Intelligence (BI) is about analysing what has happened to date and looking for efficiencies to optimise the business in the future. BI typically analyses static snapshots of internal data about a business’ customers, sites, stores, staff and sales – producing either pre-canned reports or on the fly visualisations as the analyst explores that static historical data. It is a bit like looking in your rear view mirror when you are driving. Essential thing to do, but on its own nowhere near enough to enable you to drive forward safely.

Operational Intelligence (OI) on the other hand is more like looking through the windscreen while monitoring your speedometer and satnav. It’s about driving the operations of a business through a live real time visualisation fed by Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, mobile devices, vehicles and environmental feeds like traffic conditions, weather and flooding. This is important because it enables an agile, more informed response to conditions on the ground. The one common factor in all those data feeds is location – where the sensors are, where the vehicles are – and so on. The only sensible way to visualise it is on a map by taking real time feeds, and combining them intuitively using where the things are as the unifying factor.

Are there any data regulatory considerations or protection measures that are associated with using Operational Intelligence?

The short answer is no – or no more than with BI or other line of business systems. However, there are things to keep in mind. Employees might not appreciate their location or that of their vehicle being tracked. They need to understand that it’s to enable them to do their job more safely and efficiently – you can see when they’re off the intended route or detained somewhere longer than expected so you can check they are safe. It also means they’re less likely to be sent miles to carry out a job when it turns out that a colleague was working round the corner and could easily have carried out the work. It’s also more likely that they’ll arrive at the customer that needs visiting or the asset that needs maintaining on time and with the right equipment – making their day less frustrating and more productive.

If you’re a retailer tracking customers to see if they are near your store so that you can send them offers, you need them to sign up to share their location through your mobile App – most will. However, you do need to be careful not to store the location information unnecessarily and certainly not after they cease to be a customer.

Should businesses be doing it themselves, or outsourcing it to third party data analysts?

OI is about supporting the way you run your operations in real time. You can’t ship it off to an analyst somewhere else and get the answers once a week. However, you can outsource the IT and the running of the system if you wish to do that and with an enterprise geographic information system (GIS) you can run all or part of the solution in the cloud, while rigorously being able to secure the data and communications.

As a business, why do I need Operational Intelligence?

Get in your car and try to drive to somewhere in the next county while only looking in the rear view mirror. You won’t get very far. A successful organisation has to constantly move forward and grow so the more you can factor in a live understanding of the dynamically changing landscape that you operate in, the more chance you have.

In a car, your view out of the windscreen, your satnav and other dashboard displays allow you to drive forward safely and efficiently. If you happen to drive a vehicle to serve customers then that will enable you to provide a great service and a great customer experience. It’s the same for an organisation that wants to succeed – know what’s going on around and within your organisation and respond and adapt dynamically in real time. That’s the way to optimise efficiency, deliver a great customer experience and maximise performance.

Where does the responsibility for implementing and managing Operational Intelligence lie?

OI affects the whole organisation and likely your customers and suppliers as well. It is really about optimising your operations so will likely be driven from your operations management or director and should be embraced by your existing BI function, who actually can use the underlying systems to do new, additional types of analytics – perhaps to drive pre-emptive maintenance based on asset type, condition, location and environment for example.

You’ll need the support of the IT department and the whole board needs to be bought into this dynamic approach – so a board level sponsor will be essential. Of course, you also need a supplier with the training, support and professional services capability to get you up and running smoothly and one who will take a partnership approach, involving a real understanding of your organisation and what you are trying to achieve.

Is BI not enough for businesses?

BI is an essential tool, but in the fast-paced, connected marketplace most organisations reside in, real-time agility is also essential – and BI fundamentally won’t address that. Think of it this way: It might be useful to receive monthly statements from your bank but in between you need those instant text alerts when your account is running low or there is a short term offer that you can take advantage of. That allows you to be agile in how you manage your account. Businesses need that kind of agility too but on a vastly larger scale.

Will OI provide businesses with useful and usable information, or will it just result in unintelligible information overload?

It could – but not if it’s done properly. We’re talking big data and more than that, time critical big data. You need a software platform that can filter out what’s not needed and give you a common operating picture with only the information that matters. Location information is the ideal way to connect, relate and filter information and the most intuitive visualisation you can get is a map – its visual, so easier for the human brain to process, and it works on where things are – something else we are naturally optimised to use in understanding our world and making the right decisions. So my advice is choose your technology platform wisely, make sure it is distributed, can deliver information to any device and it can cope with the volume of time critical data required to make the solution effective.

Read the January 2017 issue of Business Review Europe magazine. 

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