Fast Company

Innovative Ideas Are Hiding in Internal Data

When Okio Morita, Sony's founder, strolled through his labs and saw engineers working with small speakers attached their heads to listen to music privately, he made a connection. In another lab he remembered seeing a different group of engineers working on a portable tape player. He observed and oriented-- put two pieces of information together--and came up with a new idea: a portable, personal music player. The Walkman revolutionized the electronics industry and created the concept of mobile music.

Great ideas often come from connecting things that have not been connected before. But as companies grow bigger and divide themselves into businesses and divisions, maintaining the cross-filtering of idea-sparking information becomes unwieldy.

Attivio and its Unified Information Access (UIA) seek to bring this cross-pollination and coordination to an entire company electronically. It essentially takes the structured dashboards and reports of business intelligence (BI) and mashes it together with Google-esque unstructured results of search, to give you all the information that is relevant to you in one place, regardless of where the information comes from.

For example, if your company serves Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola makes a payment on an invoice, then not only would the accounts receivable department know about the payment, but that information would also find its way to the account representative responsible for managing the Coca-Cola relationship. He gets this information because he set up a query for information about anything having to do with Coca-Cola.

With UIA, all the information that is relevant to your decision finds its way to one screen, pulled from multiples sources, across the company and the web. This seems a little bit like what Microsoft's Bing search engine is trying to do--combine unstructured search results with structured information tools, like Bing's flight search channel with a "price predictor" that helps consumers decide when to buy.

It looks like Attivio has the right idea. It grew 300% last year and doubled its client base, attracting some big new names, including Advance Micro Devices (AMD) who said they went with Attivio because, "We needed a new approach to information access that extended beyond traditional search capabilities."

And many experts seem to think that Attivio is taking the first step of an exciting journey. Earlier this year, the Economist published a report called "Data, Data Everywhere" about the deluge of digital information. Attivio's UIA platform, the Active Intelligence Engine, provides immediate access to that type of data.

McKinsey & Co. cites the same proliferation of digital data as one of the top 10 technology enabled trends to watch, saying, "Data are flooding in at rates never seen before--doubling every 18 months--as a result of greater access to customer data from public, proprietary, and purchased sources, as well as new information gathered from Web communities and newly deployed smart assets."

Attivio seems to be the current leader in the trend. But being the first on the field does not always give you the upper hand. Will Attivio outpace its competitors?

It depends on who steps up. Clearly the incumbents will have to overcome the usual attachments to the way things were. As Sid Probstein, Attivio CTO, said "We don't have a legacy to drag around with us ... One of our big competitors put out a product to try to compete with us, but it was just a repackaging of a legacy [BI] solution."

Sid says they can expect to see this "wolf in sheep's clothing" competition for a while to come as competitors from Oracle to SAP try to blend in search capabilities into their enterprise database offerings.

The threat may come from the other start-ups who, like Attivio, are free to start with a blank slate. When Attivio started, Sid and his colleagues began with a fairly vague idea. "We knew we wanted to do something in the enterprise search space," Sid said. But what they realized they really loved was helping companies solve complex problems and sometimes search was not enough. Sometimes you needed more structured information gathering. They mashed the two concepts together and started something new. Like Okio Morita connected two divisions and created the Walkman, what would happen if your employees were better informed? How many "Walkman" ideas might you unlock then?

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