NLA Shows Limited Use Today but a Possible Mainstream Future in BI

Natural language analytics (NLA) presents a streamlined or automated self-service business intelligence (BI) experience for users to interact with a computer. Dresner Advisory Services defines NLA as:

“… an emerging category that uses algorithmic and semantic technology to simplify BI problems—interpreting and converting human language into data manipulation language like SQL (NLQ) and creating associated user visualizations and analyses.”

Unlike some emerging categories we cover, NLA is already here and ready for the future. To the surprise of many, “Star Trek-like” computer interactions were realized much more easily than other future predictions like the flying car (or self-driving car for that matter).

At a simple level, we can view NLA as another peripheral and means of access like a keyboard or mouse. As we move along the value chain, even simple capabilities such as the ability to transcribe, index, search, and apply analytics to spoken records likely will be a quick and easy productivity boon. And with the voice interface as the primary feature, no real barrier prevents NLA from harnessing the spoken word to gather, group, query, and analyze data with as much nuance as any developer could potentially code.

Eliminating keyboard-based processes also suggests many possibilities beyond spoken ad-hoc queries, starting with hands-free multitasking, interactive audio reporting, or using an audio query interface in group chats and collaborative settings. Anyone who deals with or has dealt with a sensory limitation could show the perfectly acceptable workarounds that already exist.

Just as paper processes were streamlined, so might the keyboard of the future augment or replace touch typing with vocal commands and physical gestures. It requires no leap of technology to operationalize and use a Siri / Alexa / Google Home-type interface for both BI-type queries and subsequent vocal intervention to tweak a sales target or adjust inventory from the boardroom or the bedside. Any industry that leans often on lexicons or dictionaries of terms is likely to see opportunities with NLA. It’s not hard to picture executives and managers as targeted users.

This is where we get ahead of ourselves because, based on adoption levels, it is still appropriate to describe NLA in future terms. As our market survey reveals, though a solid majority of users consider NLA “important,” only about one-quarter of organizations use NLA in BI, and another one-third have no plans to use it. Why is that?

It is a question still being sorted out as convenience, ease of use, personalization, and human nature collide. Practical considerations and behavioral quirks always lead us to different personal and situational preferences. For example, hands-free interfaces became extremely popular with drivers for safety reasons and are a preferred workaround for text messaging (following in the tradition of voice mails no less!).

Likewise, NLA might well find its way to the mainstream by catching on as a redundancy or augmentation, not as a threatening or unwelcome replacement. Spreadsheets and visualizations are certainly not going away, so we’d fully expect that hands, eyes, voices, and ears will all be important transmitters and receptors for BI as a situation requires. As the need arises, we expect more of the future of BI will be “out of our hands” via a turn to NLA and related technologies. Not yet, but ready for the future.

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