Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Intelligent Business Intelligence: 4 Keys to a Successful BI Approach

Ted claims he had more than 3 readers (mom, sister, wife) last time, so he's back for more.

One of the things I really like about this piece is the view into Ted's mind as he is going through the process. I think many of us can (ultimately) can figure out the technical side, it's the When, What and Why that become the bigger questions. Enjoy!

One of the greatest challenges business intelligence (BI) customers face is the adoption of BI solutions. Vendor selection and procurement, implantation and validation, and technical skill acquisition are challenges that can be met with some inspiration and perspiration. Many of the critical organizational components are often in place for successful BI adoption (executive, managerial, technical, functional), but too often they are not orchestrated and sustained properly to ensure success. (Full disclosure: I am learning these lessons through full and repeated BI fail of my own.)

Often BI is thought of in terms of a technology solution provided by IT. Less often it is thought of in terms of a functional solution provided by various report writers and developers employed across an organization. Less often still, BI is thought of in terms of a sustained function of the executive team. Obviously, it is all three of these working together. Everyone knows that and speaks and writes about it everywhere. So why are many BI projects less than successful? (See Business Intelligence Software Adoption Lags BI Vendors' Perception and Business Intelligence Adoption Low and Falling.)

From what I have seen in my own organization and through a few consulting engagements, successful organizations do these four things really well around their BI approach:

Filling Key Roles
Quite a bit of emphasis seems to be placed on filling roles at the management level and at the subject matter expert (SME) level. The idea being that if you can pair up a good IT director with a good, say, payroll expert to work on BI then good things will happen. Good things may happen, but it is seldom enough. Two roles I see as critical to success are a committed, long-term C-level champion and a hard-core and committed BI ninja to grind persistently and patiently on data validation. Here is a good article that describes key roles well . If the pressure from the top and from the bottom are not consistently applied, then those in the middle tend to stay comfortably frozen.

Thinking Full Circle
This is hard to do and usually takes imaginative thinkers. My current organization usually does a good job at thinking creatively - even about its business challenges. The idea here is to structure data collection in such a way that you anticipate using that data for BI. One of our vice presidents has made this jump. He develops surveys that will align with existing ERP data, will add valuable and actionable information to his decision making, and are repeatable and repeated every year. This was difficult for him to start because he really needed to focus on the end result before most of the data was collected. Here is a good article that spells out some of the considerations needed to think full circle. You may also want to read some of what Gartner has to say about BI.

These first two are fairly standard keys to success. I've seen a couple of "softer" elements, though, that really make a difference when it comes to BI adoption.

Balancing Quantitative and Qualitative Information
This is where fear creeps in. It seems that many executives I have met are just a little skittish about making decisions based on quantitative analytics. This is the promise of BI, isn't it? Most pitches I see have some version of "cost control through real-time analytics." Our vice president for operations wants real-time analytics on overtime hours so that he can spot trends and possibly curb peaks. That is good stuff. When the idea of basing decisions on quantitative analytics comes up in a group of executives, though, they often balk at it. They see it as a binary choice between basing decisions on the numbers and basing decisions on their experience or knowledge or instinct. This is when we need to step in. I'll extend Jake's recent medical analogy and suggest that we may need to also act as psychologists. It isn't a binary choice; it is both. It is okay to inform your decisions. It is okay to overrule the numbers. Relax . . . just don't be a blinker.

Accepting Incompleteness
This is a tough thing for a lot of people to do. Many people assume that if something is not completely finished it is not usable. When it comes to information, though, being incomplete is natural. Still, when it comes to BI, many consumers will argue that it only gives them "half of the story" or "part of the big picture." That is usually true. I argue that with or without BI, most critical business decisions are made with incomplete information. Even the most complete set of information will still only give an indication of how key areas of your business are performing. (KPI anyone?) The idea here is to understand and accept that BI is incomplete and emerging. It is okay to get your Wabi Sabi on about the big picture and know that it may have blurred edges. After all, most executives I know want to use their own experience and knowledge to fill out the big picture (see above).

If you want to call me out or talk me down, hit the comments section or send me a note. If you prefer to call me out in person, I'll be at Open World , at Circuit in DC , and always at Alliance.

Ted [ linkedin | twitter ] is Vice President for Communications at the Higher Education User Group, MBA and MSIS student at the Johns Hopkins University, Director of Administrative Systems at MICA, and blogger at badgerworks.

1 comment:

Ted Simpson said...

Post-script: When I mentioned the need for a "hard-core and committed BI ninja to grind persistently and patiently on data validation," I should have included the name of our in-house ninja.

His name is Ryan Foxworthy and he has no web presence as far as I can tell (very ninjalike, I guess). I did manage to convince him to present at a conference with me this summer, though. See his shadowy image here: