Business Intelligence (BI) is not a new technology and has been a serious part of the CIO agenda since the early 2000s, but CIO surveys and this latest round table show it remains a critical strategic technology.

In the current slow economy where organisations need to react rapidly to customer demands and ensure their efficiency is maximised CIOs are placing more emphasis on BI than any other form of information management technology.

This CIO round table, which attracted a number of heavy weight CIOs from FTSE companies and who feature in the CIO 100 of leading transformative CIOs were looking to gain insights into extracting extra value from BI, the opportunities and challenges BI offers and learn what Microsoft offers in this enterprise space.

Rafal Lukawiecki, strategic consultant at Project Botticelli was the guest speaker of the evening. A leader in BI with a rich heritage in delivering BI projects, he shared his experiences and clearly impressed the attending CIOs who used the event not only to share experiences with their peers, but to really engage in an ‘ask the expert’ fashion to really gain insights from Lukawiecki and his sponsors Microsoft.

The event began with all attendees introducing themselves, their organisations and why BI was on their personal agenda. The range of organisations and BI challenges demonstrated the role this technology has to play.

A charity with 1200 staff is looking for greater efficiencies in a tough economy, while a logistics and fresh foods supplier already uses BI a great deal to significant positive effect for the organisation, this CIO, as ever was keen to remain at the head of his market and wanted to learn where the next advantages from BI can be sought.

A CIO from a major insurance group described his industry as going through significant “transition” and a sector expecting to go through high levels of initial public offering (IPO) soon and BI seen by the CIO as a way of preparing the organisation for both. A second CIO from the insurance sector agreed the sector is going through massive transformation and he personally is driving a transformation programme through that company. Both described the industry as relying on relationships and as a knowledge business it is reliant on discovering insights from the information it has from those relationships. He said the company knows more about its clients than it realises and needs to begin extracting that knowledge to create value to the customer and the organisation.

The engineering world was well represented at this round table too. One from a major global practice has just been acquired and was looking to use BI as the tool for the data integration and data alignment of the two organisations.

A peer from the engineering world described how their organisation was having to focus on profit alignments from projects and therefore needed to address the slow pace of reporting within the organisation so that the senior decision makers have the latest information to hand. Also the organisation has a wealth of data in its core product, the engineering information and he was looking to use BI to mine information that could be used for the organisation.

Two public sector CIOs were unsurprisingly looking to make significant savings from their operations and as CIOs saw BI as a way of identifying where the savings could be made without damaging services. The second public sector CIO saw BI as crucial as the sector becomes more commercial in its operations and he was therefore looking for best practice leadership.

From global telecoms, a CIO described how BI was widely used and “key to what we do”, but in an increasingly competitive market it was important that as a CIO, BI was pushed and the organisation sought how to extract competitive advantage from it. He also raised the concern that high usage of BI can create data level issues for organisations and therefore increase costs to the CIO.

The CIO at one of the UK’s largest broadcasters attending was hoping discover how BI could be used to create a more accurate predictive information management culture. Already a major user of BI for reporting, he was seeking to learn how that information could be used to assess potential impacts.

From the outsourcing and professional services sector a CIO was being challenged by user’s interest in the latest in-memory systems that will potentially speed up reporting processes. This CIO wanted to know what the challenges to organisations were of deploying in-memory BI.

As ever a wide ranging debate assessed not only technology and business leadership but also the cultural issues surrounding information and how BI is used across the organisation. All agreed that BI will increasingly become an important and more widely used business application as the workforce joining organisations comes with no knowledge of a world without Google.

CIOs described younger workers as strong data users that are adept at finding and using data.

Lukawiecki  began an interesting thread that BI was a misnomer in today’s organisations and that the tools and the usage is closer to analytics and added that this was what the Google generation sought. They knew information existed; they want to analyse to reveal greater understanding. Discussing this topic with the CIOs they agreed that the nirvana organisations, CIOs and the BI development community is aiming for is a system that tells the organisation: what will happen; what would happen and did it happen.

The debate naturally progressed into how all the CIOs expect BI to become a self service tool in the organisation and for BI to leave its roots as a specialist tool for a small select group of users. The challenge this will create Lukawiecki and several CIOs raised was that organisations and CIOs will need to define how success for the organisation is defined and measured.

In the current technology landscape cloud computing is never far from a debate and a number of CIOs were championing and interested in how the power and scale of cloud computing was going to become essential if organisations are going to really push the boundaries of BI. As organisations demand more predictive analysis then many agreed cloud computing would have to be harnessed, but again there are challenges around data security.

The debate also discussed not only CIOs using cloud computing for BI, but also online analysis services akin to the Amazon Mechanical Turk service where analysts put their expertise on offer online and CIOs and organisations provide the data. All agreed it was an interesting idea, but the challenge for organisations is posing and communicating the question in the right way to really gain value from such a service. The opportunity such a service offers is to satisfy business demand when recruiting good business analysts is challenging.

Following on from cloud Lukawiecki spent some time explaining to an audience that clearly valued his insights, how presentation techniques will change. Visualisation will become increasingly important as organisation move away from pie charts and look for imaginative ways of displaying and communicating data. A number of CIOs from engineering, broadcasting and telecoms said they were already assessing improved visualisation methods. Greater simplicity is being demanded by users the table agreed and many showed an interest in learning more about Power View from Microsoft. CIOs in telecoms and broadcasting told the attendees their organisations have been using Power View on a small scale, but were impressed with the results seen so far.

The CIOs representing the engineering and insurance sectors highlighted why BI will remain a key topic for their sectors in the coming years as they discussed the growing data levels from telematics and sensors. Both sectors are increasingly relying on growing levels of data created by sensors inside vehicle, buildings and structures to base decisions on. Thus BI will become increasingly important.

This last point led to the final point of the evening, where are the moral boundaries for CIOs and their organisations? As data becomes increasingly personal, informing organisations about driver behaviour it will impinge on the levels of service that customers can expect.

This was without doubt one of the best CIO round tables as CIOs really engaged with an expert speaker, with each other and the topic. Clearly BI will remain a key business technology challenge to CIOs and as the event revealed, the reason is that the user scenarios and demands placed on BI alter continually, so BI is not like integrating ERP, it is a continually evolving information challenge.