Senior Leader’s BI Software Market Perspective – An Interview with Bill Harmer

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Harmer, an SVP in the Business Intelligence software market with experience working at Information Builders, SAP and Microsoft. Our discussion provided some great insight on the current state of the Business Intelligence market, what customers are looking for and where we might be heading over the next few years.

I hope you find the conversation interesting and if you think Bill could be an asset to your organisation feel free to contact me on 07946 577145 or and I will put you in touch.

Simon Edbury

SE: What impact did the pandemic have on customer appetite for BI software solutions in 2020?

BH: The demand for better analysis behind decision making has been an increasing priority over the last 10 years. McKinsey have spoken of “breakaway companies” both surviving and thriving when exploiting data to guide future direction. The alignment of teams on strategy (via “data derived” logic), creating a foundation for people to exploit data with technology and importantly enabling operational staff with decision support dashboards – underpin the ability of companies to succeed and become category leaders.

Overlay the pandemic impact on companies, I have seen a ying-yang response, on one hand a need for preserving cash, then an opposite pressure to identifying the growth and shrinking markets and deciding where to invest. This has increased the appetite to exploit BI tools, but balanced with leadership agendas for short term survival and/or change. Assessing where the meaningful data resides, its consistency, quality and age, along with the best presentation of the information then become key factors to consider. This in combination with clarity of the client’s preferred business application platforms (eg. SAP, Oracle, SFDC, AWS, open source or…) and integration technologies, result in time to a decision on the appropriate BI tools and careful implementation planning. For these reasons I have seen customers be diligent and although keen to adopt the solution, many 2020 decisions were delayed from initial time frames.

SE: How do you think potential customers’ behaviour changed with regard to buying SaaS solutions? How did this affect your sales cycle?

BH: Most organisations today, across multiple sectors are a hybrid mix of on-premise, managed service components and cloud based subscription services. The pandemic has not really changed the fundamentals of how a solution is deployed, to support a business. One of the important variations is that speed to value may be accelerated when adopting a solution that is already operational as a cloud service.

The factors that impact how a solution is consumed by a business are many and varied but include: Data security – can you place customer data in another entity’s datacentre? Country boundaries for data privacy? What user availability demands and code update controls are required? What level of IT services and resources does the organisation elect to self manage and invest for differentiation? Or are certain areas ready for outsource?

My experience of the market in the last year, showed a delay in some contracts as diligence and budget approvals had increased scrutiny, but companies were still keen to underpin better data exploitation, possibly as part of a transformation.

SE: It’s been said that Covid 19 accelerated digital transformation for some businesses with 3 years progress happening in 3 months. Do you agree?

BH: Hmm good question! Let’s re-frame this point. Covid-19 certainly forced an increase in remote working and the need to rapidly deploy infrastructure to support a large percentage of the national workforce to WFH – this had to happen in a matter of weeks / months.

Digital transformation is more of a business model evolution, to focus on existing and potential new customer areas, exploiting assets in an organisation and to potentially create new value streams from existing processes and data. As a result of a transformation programme the business aims to be more agile and able to drive growth from new or differentiated markets.

Talking to my customers and prospect forums in 2020, I sensed drivers that did accelerate projects, but the times scales to impact vary. A drinks provider was moving rapidly to on-line order management as the bar / restaurant route to market diminished. A German manufacturer of cleaning products struggled to fulfil customers with a 400%+ increase in demand for certain cleaning agents, while their vehicle parts division saw demand decrease dramatically. Utility companies are re-framing the attention of customer service to support the less able and vulnerable, talking of “food delivery with a meter reading”. Insurance companies are looking to accelerate claim turnaround, minimise fraud and capture new risk data, while dealing with claim volume increases. Not least of all in health, organisations were looking to ensure both tracking of available resources (eg. bed availability) along with systems to ensure “duty of care” over staff.

In summary, I would say that the pandemic had varying triggers on organisations ranging from survival to operate in a different way to market, through to accelerating some specific processes / capabilities that could be defined as part of a transformation programme.

SE: Did the pandemic shift the kind of problems customers wanted to solve with data? And if so, can you give any examples? Were there any common themes?

BH: As discussed in the prior point customer’s problems ranged from survival due to for example loss of distribution channel (eg. drinks supplier), to companies that had massive growth to manage as the Covid impact drove demand for cleaning products, PPE products (masks to synthetic gloves) and numerous on-line services.

A common theme that I saw was the need for data cleansing and normalisation. BI tools had evolved through a period in the market where the User Interface and display modes became the focus – but poor data consistency supplying these dashboards resulted in a lack of confidence in the accuracy of the information presented – very “pretty & logical” displays, but not reinforcing trends anticipated by the users.

A second common theme I saw was the massive growth in on-line payments as physical retail distribution moved to “digital windows” and fulfillment. This is a theme we have all witnessed with some of the significant High Street retail brands failing due to their poor on-line capabilities to manage customer engagement in a pandemic – Top Shop, Debenhams… Equally, I read in the Sunday Times this weekend of JD Sports & Sports Direct achieving 25% of their 2020 turnover online, with ambitions to over 30% soonest in this athleisure annual £50Bn market.

Continuity of supply chains and the data giving clear status of shortfalls or supplier diversity have become another key topic for retail and manufacturing markets. Understanding the supply chain and risks from lockdown scenarios impacting staffing and distribution were key to some clients. I spoke with a large retail brand for which food was a major element and they were running risk assessments on prior experience of fulfilment.

SE: With so many people working remotely what impact did that have on the implementation of BI solutions for customers?

BH: Many factors impact the ability to deploy a solution, customer staff availability, leadership investment, a framework and clear method to implement a solution, experience with skills transfer, maturity of professional services team, possible partner knowledge, to name a few. However, if there is good clarity of project scope and the processes to be addressed, a culture of co-working / collaboration to a clear set of staged goals – then implementing a solution working remotely is achievable. IBI has a Spanish banking client that deployed a whole new branch reporting system with the professional services team never stepping on site! The project was a “poster child” in our EMEA South team for top quality customer engagement and working also with a key partner – Accenture.

SE: Amongst customers you have worked with what has been the biggest internal hurdle to them making the leap to being a data driven business? How have they overcome that barrier?

BH: One of the most comprehensive digital transformation projects – exploiting data, that I have witnessed in the last year was the fundamental change that Clive White is driving at the broadcast services company Arqiva (Parent Macquarie Group). Although their core business focuses on the management of infrastructure – masts, dishes, transmission centres, providing TV, Radio, Satellite and data communications. The transformation project has touched all aspects of their business, systems, processes, data pools – customer and supplier – internal stakeholders to provide a more agile and targeted business in the future to service the broadcast media and utility markets. In summary, I believe that leadership supporting cultural change in a company, for employees to exploit data based decisions and to seek new outcomes at multiple levels in an organisation is one of the key hurdles to cross.

SE: What is your expectation for the global economy in 2021?

BH: Unfortunately, I think the first half of 2021 will be largely impacted by the Corona pandemic as the vaccination programmes are rolled out internationally.

Following 2020, some sectors – travel, hospitality, live entertainment, luxury brands will continue to be negatively impacted and hopefully recover – all be it slowly. While the food, health, medical supplies, consumer goods, financial services, public sector markets continue with significant workloads based on the populations limited activities and demand for services in this time frame.

On a local level I believe the UK has still yet to understand the detailed implications of Brexit and the now completed separation agreement with the EU. A European at heart, I believe that we need to continue to work closely with our European colleagues and in some way act as a unified market – when compared to the economies of the USA or China, it will be important to find ways to collaborate. But the detailed implications of our agreement will only become clear over the next 6-9 months. Intelligent data solutions will inevitably be part of the fix, helping resolve some of the issues, including supply chain continuity, trade compliance documentation, and quota management guides. Requirements in this area will I believe emerge through 2021.

SE: How closely tied are a wider economic recovery and increasing deployment of BI software solutions?

BH: I predict a continued level of consolidation and M&A activity in the marketplace (eg. ibi acquisition by Tibco). This is partly driven by companies with aligned customer propositions and gaining economies of scale over a larger customer community. But increasingly I believe the aggregation of data integration, data “cleansing” and intelligent processing and display, into a combined platform to address the business need for widespread input, of trusted clean data into an intelligent application making interpretation or auto response to data feeds possible and effective.

To answer the question, broad cross sector economic recovery will only come as the vaccines have an impact on Covid-19 and the “sleeping” sectors are able to re-emerge. As companies look to rebuild and target carefully to survive, or companies look to diversify from the “boom products” (eg. medical supplies) of the pandemic era – data BI tools will be one part of that equation, so partially linked.

SE: What is the toughest challenge in terms of skills and talent for a senior executive in a BI software vendor?

BH: The depth of experienced skills and talent that understand integration data management, data quality, data science, process definitions, UI and information presentation, machine learning (ML), predictive and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, is variable. There is often quoted a shortfall of these technology skills in the market, however at a local level I believe there are a few key factors in play.

There are many specialists in one or two of these disciplines but limited few able to cross all elements in the breadth of an integrated business solution, plus able to knit partner assets to extend solution value. Securing good programme and technical talent will be key for success.

Increasingly the market will demand true predictive capabilities, applying more data a feeds, than past performance ML to derive future outcomes and the talent in the form of data scientists and AI tool builders are nascent skills.

I predict the definition of the BI market offerings will evolve to be broader – including the AI elements of incremental value and sector specific templates will evolve around, for example, supply chain intelligence, consumer tracking intelligence and IOT/Manufacturing intelligence. Specialism will be needed due to the complexity of each specific market dynamics.

SE: How do you think the landscape for BI solutions will change over the next five years? Do you see big players acquiring best of breed niche players to augment their customer offering, for example?

BH: Five years is a lifetime in technology so let’s focus on the next 3 years. The pandemic will influence the 2021 window as mentioned earlier. So moving forward there are some interesting changes impacting the market.

I have listened to the annual forum’s from some of the major technology players in the market (that have had to all move to online updates in 2020). AWS Re-invent – Andy Jassy eloquently spoke of the incremental cloud based releases of data storage /databases, processing, analytics, AI tools “Sagemaker”, call centre capabilities and sector specific stacks. This moves AWS up the value chain from infrastructure provider and supports the developer and “build cloud service” technology teams. Salesforce – Steve Benioff spoke at Dreamforce of the Digital Imperative and growing SFDC capability stack – Tableau, Mulesoft, Customer 360, now tying into a consistent user experience with Slack ($27.7Bn) purchase in December 2020. Microsoft spoke of the evolving commitment into Microsoft BI with increased intelligence in the cloud via “Synapse” data tools.

Google remains a significant cloud service option with their global processing power and self managed tools, currently increasing focus on delivering SAP services to the Enterprise, including the cloud platform analytics (updated from Business Objects capability). Other enterprise companies such as Oracle, IBM, ServiceNow having considerable customer bases, continue to assess should they carry on alone with their own cloud service capabilities or exploit the scale and partner with these players – AWS, Azure, Google?

Then there are the more niche players and innovative new entrants, including Alteryx, Tibco, SAS, Domo, Microstrategy, Cloudera (Hadoop), Databricks, Elastic Search, Data Robot, Dataiku, Domino. (I recognize I am blurring analytics with data management vendors in some of these cases, but this is supported by my earlier point on the importance of data management and data quality).

I do see some level of acquisition and consolidation in these two market tiers in the next 36 months, the larger companies will buy-in the appropriate niche player to fill a capability gap or gain deeper presence in a specific market area. My perception is AWS tends to build itself and work with client sponsors to add incremental value. Therefore I would suggest that Google and Microsoft may buy in some of these niche companies – provided the technology combination is not too high a hurdle to overcome.

SE: I know you are actively seeking your next challenge in the world of BI software. Where do you see yourself and what do you want to achieve?

BH: Great question 😊  my career has spanned exploiting many technology evolutions from mainframe to distributed, web commerce to security, open source to ERP, digital transformation, to recently over 5 years in the data analytics, data management and AI marketplace. I aim to exploit this experience and importantly the application of these technologies to deliver positive, business outcomes and thereby value for clients. I enjoy leading cross functional teams, identifying partners where value add, to find innovative business propositions that have an impact on the markets served. I also enjoy working across EMEA, identifying and nurturing technology professionals, forming teams, in each culture, to be successful, finding ways to increase their impact – I welcome continuing this international dimension.

I am currently seeking my next project that will exploit my leadership skills and ambition to “make a difference”, key components in that move will include some of the following elements:

■ Sustain and grow an evangelical customer base

■ Lead new business growth and identify new market segments

■ Lead a clear and differentiated, high impact value proposition

■ Foster a culture to retain & lure top talent to join the “brand of choice” for A-list professionals

■ Build a sustainable & profitable ARR for services delivered.

■ Gain the respect of my team & peer group for the results achieved and the culture that underpins such success.

■ Embrace the evolution of AI capabilities to drive competitive advantage.

I trust you have found some value in these observations and welcome the chance to discuss, as appropriate.