Thought Leader Interview

Henry Morris: Decision support
and analytic applications

Group Vice President for Integration,
Development, and Application Strategies, at IDC

Dan Power, Editor of, conducted an email interview with Henry Morris in early October 2006.

Q1: How did you get interested in decision support, analytic applications and computerized information systems?

Morris's Response: I came into the high tech field in the early 1980's when relational databases were first being implemented. My first job was as a technical writer at Digital Equipment Corporation as part of the team that was developing the database and related query and 4GL tools. The first manual I wrote was on writing reports with the Datatrieve query language. I was fascinated with the challenge of finding ways to access data in response to real business problems. This was the beginning of an interest in decision support systems that has lasted 25 years.

Q2: Please explain the term "analytic applications". Are all decision support systems "analytic applications"? Are there non-decision support analytic applications?

Morris's Response: I coined the term "analytic applications" in 1997, a year after I started the data warehousing research program at IDC. I had observed the growth of packaged transactional applications, notably ERP suites by the likes of SAP, PeopleSoft, and Oracle. It seemed to me that all the conditions were right for the packaging of analytic applications: experience gained in custom data warehousing and business intelligence projects, the popularity of business methodologies such as the balanced scorecard and activity based costing, and the ability to extend the business processes that begin with packaged transactional applications. I developed a definition of analytic applications: functionally separate though potentially interoperable with transactional applications, having process support, and accessing time-based data from multiple sources. Analytic applications provide decision support if they provide information that is relevant to the responsibilities of decision makers. But the most advanced such applications actually provide guidance in the processes for making the decisions.

Q3: What is the financial impact of business analytics? Is the ROI of analytics projects a useful metric?

Morris's Response: Three years ago IDC published a study on the financial impact of business analytics. We examined 42 analytics projects across North America and Europe in a variety of industries, collecting metrics from business users and IT. There was a significant return on investment. The benefits we could measure had to do with labor productivity improvements and business process enhancement (i.e. driving more revenue or reducing business costs). The biggest challenge of the study was finding organizations that had maintained metrics that we could examine. And this raises an important point -- the need to clarify objectives and capture data that will enable an analysis of the business impact of an analytics project.

Q4: Briefly, what is the relationship between business intelligence, decision support and business process automation?

Morris's Response: I see business intelligence and decision support as roughly equivalent. You are developing information that can aid the decision making process. Business process automation describes the ability to clearly define and then automate business activities. When these are decision-making activities (rather than taking orders or cutting checks), we use the term "intelligent process automation".

Q5: What is master data management and the policy hub? What firms need to have systems for master data management?

Morris's Response: Master data is the data about entities that are shared across systems: for example, products, customers, accounts, locations. Master data management is the process to develop consistent, agreed upon views of these entities and their attributes. The policy hub is where the rules are managed that can then be forwarded to other systems to keep them synchronized and aligned with respect to this shared data.

Q6: Why are manager's interested in linking analytics and business operational systems? Is this a fad or a real change in how organizations will operate in the future?

Morris's Response: I often hear managers talking about the need to become more agile, to adopt a strategy of "sense and respond". This requires ongoing monitoring of the business, providing feedback that enables corrective action. What this implies is that we should see more hybrid or composite applications that incorporate automation for both operational and analytic tasks.

Q7: What computerized decision support application strategy should managers adopt? Is their a "best practices" for analytic applications?

Morris's Response: Many managers tell me that they would prefer to buy, rather than build their analytic applications. Over the last ten years, there have been more packaged (i.e. "buy") analytic applications available, making such a strategy more practical. At the end of the day, however, the ability to manage and maintain the underlying data infrastructure is probably the most important critical success factor for analytic applications, whether the applications are built or bought.

Q8: What do you see as major trends in computerized decision support? Where are we headed?

Morris's Response: There are a number of trends that are important today. I've mentioned "intelligent process automation", the ability to automate decision-making processes, including exception handling. This reflects the convergence of BI and Business Process Automation. But besides the injection of BI within a process, there's the need to have intelligence about a process. That is, capture data about the process to examine its efficiency or effectiveness.

We also see increased uptake in BI and DW appliances. This approach can provide increased price/performance, but also ensure that there is a single vendor who takes responsibility for the hardware and software as an integrated unit. We've seen new companies like Netezza develop these appliances. We're also starting to see established system and server vendors following this path.

Finally, the ability to incorporate content (especially text) alongside structured data is an important trend. This is already being done in mining call center notes and other textual material to provide early warning of customer dissatisfaction. The ability to provide unified access across the divide between structured and unstructured data will become increasingly important.

About Henry Morris

Henry Morris is Group Vice President for Integration, Development, and Application Strategies at IDC, a worldwide research firm with headquarters in Framingham, Massachusetts. He started the Analytics program at IDC and coined the term “analytic applications” in 1997. He has written extensively on analytic applications, decision-centric business intelligence, master data management, and the ROI of analytics projects. Dr. Morris earned his B.A. with distinction from the University of Michigan and his Ph. D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.


Power, D., "Henry Morris Interview: Decision support and analytic applications", DSSResources.COM, 12/03/2006.