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Wayne Eckerson

Welcome to Wayne's World, my blog that illuminates the latest thinking about how to deliver insights from business data and celebrates out-of-the-box thinkers and doers in the business intelligence (BI), performance management and data warehousing (DW) fields. Tune in here if you want to keep abreast of the latest trends, techniques, and technologies in this dynamic industry.

About the author >

Wayne has been a thought leader in the business intelligence field since the early 1990s. He has conducted numerous research studies and is a noted speaker, blogger, and consultant. He is the author of two widely read books: Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business (2005, 2010) and The Secrets of Analytical Leaders: Insights from Information Insiders (2012).

Wayne is founder and principal consultant at Eckerson Group,a research and consulting company focused on business intelligence, analytics and big data.

June 2013 Archives

I've met quite a few BI professionals who privately--and sometimes publicly--confide that they can't move fast enough to keep their business clients happy. They secretly hope that I'll wipe away their shame, frustration and guilt by saying they aren't to blame for this discontent. They want me to indict the business people, saying they are too unreasonable, impatient, cheap, and short-term focused. Now, it's true that the business people are all these things, and more! But that doesn't mean the BI team is not at fault. If it takes two to tango, then both dancers in a pair share the blame for any missteps. And when it comes to BI, it's the BI team that has to kiss and make up.

So what does a BI manager do when his business counterparts have virtually abandoned the BI team? What recourse does a BI manager have when the business prefers to chase a shiny new BI tool, hire its own BI specialists, and build data shadow systems? This is a serious matter. Without the blessing and confidence of the business, the BI program will shrivel and die, a victim of neglect and diminished funding. To avert this dismal scenario, BI managers must move quickly and boldly. Desperate times calls for desperate action.

Break the Rules

The first step in preventing this long, slow slide into BI oblivion is to throw out the rulebook. You must be willing to break the rules in the short run to achieve BI success in the long run. This is one of the key principles espoused by the BI leaders whom I profiled in my recent book, "Secrets of Analytical Leaders: Insights of Information Insiders". Those leaders achieved BI success by delivering business value fast and continuously. They made delivering value a priority over maintaining standards for architecture, development, project management, and tooling.

Unfortunately, most BI managers, like religious converts, are unwilling to subvert closely-held BI standards. But placing BI standards above business value is the real sacrilege. A BI environment that adheres to all the standards but goes unused by the business delivers no return on investment and should be shut down. Conversely, BI environments that deliver value--no matter how ugly or non-standard--quickly gain credibility and funding from the business. With money in hand, these BI teams are able to retrofit their misfit BI systems into elegant, highly architected BI environment. The moral of the story is that it's easier to fix a broken architecture than a broken relationship.

Outsource or Clean Shop

It's one thing to break the rules, it's another to be incompetent. A BI team should be able to build a production-ready data mart (i.e. new subject area) and associated dashboard in three months. If that's not happening, it's time for a gut check. Either you aren't scoping your projects properly, employing agile development methods, or carefully profiling your source data. Or maybe you just don't have the requisite skills, experience, or political clout to deliver a robust BI solution.

If that's the case, maybe it's time to outsource your BI team and program to an experienced BI consultancy or BI cloud provider. With proper executive support, these outsourcers can quickly create and implement an enterprise BI environment. (See "Time to Outsource Your BI Program?") If you don't like outsourcing, maybe it's time to reconstruct your BI team. Fire your "B" players and replace them with "A" players. Since "A" players are ten times more productive than "B" players*, you can hire a third as many, pay them twice as much, and invest the rest in software licenses for your "A" players. If you go this route, you'll need to replace your industrial era (e.g. "assembly line") development processes with agile techniques that empower your "A" players to deliver complete solutions either by themselves or in small SWAT teams.

Manage the Silver Bullet

Perhaps you are a highly experienced BI manager with a good track record at other companies, but you still can't satisfy the business customers at your new organization. In that case, sometimes it pays to go with the flow. There is a little maxim in my household that applies equally to BI: "What you resist persists." If an antsy department head wants a shiny new BI toy, why deny him? He's just going to purchase it with his own budget and deploy it under your radar screen. So don't wait for department heads to cannibalize your BI program, do it for them!

This might mean purchasing a new visual discovery tool (e.g. Tableau, QlikTech, etc.) and giving your department heads the keys. But before you do, configure the tool to connect to your data warehouse so they consume standard enterprise data, along with their local data sources. If it's executives you are trying to please, publish their favorite dashboard on an iPad, and they'll love you for it! For customers and suppliers, create a report portal so they can view partnership and trade data, among other things. This will make your procurement and service departments very happy. These types of high-visibility applications give you valuable air cover while you build an enterprise data warehouse. While they consume some additional resources, the expenditure of time and effort pays handsome dividends.

Be Bold--Ask for More

But maybe your problem isn't calcified BI processes, an unmotivated staff, or itchy business heads. Perhaps it's a conservative executive team that lacks a compelling vision for BI and is overly parsimonious with the BI budget. In this case, it can pay to go big and bold. That is, put together a plan that shows how BI can give the company a competitive advantage or eliminate risk--and then ask for money--lots of it! A big number will grab executives' attention and force them to consider your request. BI is for the bold, not the timid!

Of course, you'll need to make sure your plan shows plenty of concrete ROI. You'll also need to make good on your promise--and quickly! (See above). To sell your plan, include compelling case studies of close competitors that have used BI for competitive advantage. And add a demo of potential applications so executives get a gut feel of what's possible. Current research shows that all decisions are emotional, so make sure you appeal to your executives' heads as well as their hearts (and competitive juices.)

Summary. Some of you BI managers are afraid to think big and ask bigger because they don't want to inflate expectations of the business. But that's a risk you need to take to get executives' attention and unleash the funding you need to get your BI program into high gear. In fact, that's the common thread in this article: if the business doesn't view the BI team as a strategic partner--for whatever reason--then nothing else matters. The key to BI success is to deliver business value continuously, even if you have to break the rules.


Posted June 18, 2013 2:58 PM
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Let's face it: many of you have had discouraging results with business intelligence (BI). It's not that you haven't tried, but the deck seems stacked against you. The business doesn't invest enough to get the BI results it wants, partially for budgetary reasons, but also because it doesn't trust IT with large sums of money. You still believe in the potential that BI can bring to your company, but you don't know how to make it happen.

If you are in this situation, perhaps it's time to consider outsourcing your BI program. That's right. Outsource yourself--or at least a large part of your team--to a company that specializes in BI. There are a growing number of consultancies and cloud-based BI firms that now offer such services or are contemplating making the shift. The advent of cloud-based hosting services is certainly fueling the growth of BI outsourcing, but the biggest driver is the growing intolerance among business executives for failed projects. BI outsourcers increase the odds that you will reap real value from your BI investments.

A New Approach

Of course, the IT industry has had a long track record with outsourcing, and it's not all positive. However, IT outsourcing has been more about standardization and economies of scale--basically, cost savings. But BI outsourcing is different; it's about avoiding failure and delivering value from BI investments.

The BI outsourcers I've spoken with, such as Birst, a cloud BI vendor, and BI consultancies, such as Tricore Solutions and Information Control Company (ICC), are specialists that live and breathe BI on a daily basis and have a solid track record of delivering positive results. For them, BI is not an art, it's a science. They have well defined processes, specialized software, and highly experienced staff who can deliver positive results quickly. Now these providers are saying, "I can deliver even more value if you give me all the keys to your BI kingdom."

Traditionally, companies hire BI consultancies to build a predefined solution using the their existing tools and processes. But the consultancies often have to do a lot of remedial work with an organization's data or BI architecture before it can begin actual development. Consequently, these providers now want responsibility for everything, including defining the roadmap, managing data governance, selecting tools, designing the architecture, and managing operations. Essentially, they want to manage your entire BI Competency Center and guarantee success in return.

Options

Every BI outsourcer has a well-honed methodology for building BI solutions and each has its own secret sauce for rapidly delivering business value. Some leverage offshore resources or use software that automates data acquisition and modeling; others provide a highly integrated BI stack (e.g. Birst) or host BI solutions in the cloud or some combination of all these options. Expect more BI vendors and consultancies to get into the BI outsourcing game.

Pricing. In addition, some BI outsourcers charge monthly subscription fees rather than the traditional fee-for-service or fixed-price model. This eliminates upfront capital expenditures that often dissuade smaller companies or those with limited budgets from undertaking BI initiatives. However, BI outsourcers are quick to say that delivering quality BI solutions is not cheap. The hardest part involves wrestling companies' data to the ground until it's in a usable form for reporting and analysis. This consumes 60% to 80% of the effort in delivering any BI solution and it's the step that most clients don't invest enough time and money in to guarantee success. The subscription model spreads the cost across a longer time frame while wedding the BI outsourcer to your success since it often takes a year or two before it can make a profit on your business.

Considerations

To succeed with BI outsourcing, you need to carefully evaluate the track record of potential providers. You want one that has an outstanding track record for delivering successful BI solutions. You also need to assign a liaison from your company to manage the outsourcing relationship and ensure the provider has access to the proper business and IT constituencies. Also, you need to embrace the provider's methodology for delivering BI solutions and not force your on software development lifecycle on it. "When we're forced to bend our practices to accommodate sub-optimal processes, our velocity and customer satisfaction suffer," says Jim Gallo, national director for business analytics at ICC.

One of the biggest risks with BI outsourcing is getting locked into a third party vendor that holds your data hostage as it increases fees. Make sure there is a safety valve clause in your contract that enables you to insource your BI environment easily and quickly.

Conclusion

If you can't get traction for your BI program and business executives are increasingly reluctant to fund new initiatives, you need take drastic action. One option is to outsource your BI program to a highly experienced BI services provider who has an outstanding track record of success. With the right partner, you just might achieve the BI nirvana of which you've always dreamed.


Posted June 11, 2013 3:15 PM
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Suppose you are an applications developer who wants to include reports or dashboards in your final product or perhaps give users the ability to explore data visually without boundaries, which is the current rage in this era of "big data." Do you build the BI functionality yourself or do you buy it from a reputable business intelligence (BI) vendor and then embed it into your application?

There are pros and cons to both options, but since BI tools have matured significantly in the past 20 years and now run on modern hardware, software, and internet platforms, it's likely that you'll opt to embed an existing BI product rather than invest the time and resources required to build your own BI capabilities.

Why Build?

Nonetheless, there are reasons why you might want to roll your own BI functionality. Control is perhaps the biggest factor. When you build your own BI functionality, you get just want you want and nothing more or less. When you tightly integrate BI functionality into your application, you can deliver an exquisite experience for users. Users can flow seamlessly from one set of functionality to another without having to launch a separate application with its own look and feel. This degree of integration might be particularly important if analytics is one of the primary features of the overall product.

But there are other reasons as well. Building your own capabilities might make sense if BI tools don't support the functionality you need. Or, perhaps it's quicker to build your own capabilities than integrate a commercial BI tool with your application. And finally, you avoid licensing and royalty costs when you build your own BI functionality and you don't have to worry about handing off support calls to a third party.

However, most application developers simply slip into becoming BI developers when they decide to add a chart or table to their application. They mostly use open source libraries to keep costs low. But over time they create more and more BI content, which they have to maintain and enhance. In essence, they end up creating a BI platform, which becomes a huge time sink. Although they don't know it, these developers need access to a low-cost BI platform which looks and feels like low-cost charting libraries but supports the full life cycle of BI development.

Why Buy and Embed?

Despite these benefits, more companies choose to embed third party BI software into their products or applications rather than build their own BI. The primary reason is that for many developers, BI is not a core competency and they don't want to divert precious time and resources into building, maintaining, and extending a BI tool. It's much simpler to outsource these capabilities to a trusted third party who lives and breathes BI for a living and can keep up with all the latest developments. Embedding commercial BI tools into your application enables your development team to focus on what it does best: building the features and functions of the core application.

Moreover, embedding third party software instantly enhances your application or product with best-of-breed BI capabilities. This makes your application more appealing and desirable. In addition, the third party invests its own resources to enhance the product on a continuous basis, ensuring your application always contains the most modern and up-to-date BI functionality. And embedding a third party product accelerates your time to market. Rather than building BI functionality from scratch, you simply integrate your application with a third party BI program using a high-level API, which are increasingly Web-based and easy to learn. Finally, the right BI vendor can work on your behalf, promoting your (commercial) product in the marketplace and serving as a channel for additional sales.

Things to Consider

If these benefits compel seem worthwhile, and you decide to embed a commercial BI product in your application, you should consider a few things.

BI functionality. First, not all BI products are alike. You need to find a product that supports the BI functionality you need. And that depends on the types of users who will be using your product and how they want and need to access and analyze information. For example, casual users like executives and managers usually simply need to monitor key business processes. As such, they generally need simple, interactive dashboards that consolidate information, display visual metrics, and let users click to drill down to more detailed information. Power users, on the other hand, such as business analysts will want to explore data, add dimensions, create calculated fields and custom groups, and author their own reports and dashboards. Most BI tools are either better suited to casual users or power users, but usually not both.

Rich API. Second, you'll need to evaluate the depth, breadth, and accessibility of the application programming interface (API) that enables you to plug the BI tool into your application. Ideally, you want to be able to access the full range of functionality offered by the BI tool, as well as create a custom look and feel that matches your application's graphical interface (i.e., "white labeling").

A prior generation of BI tools required you to interleave BI code with your own application code. (See "Evolution of Embedded BI"). Today, BI vendors who seriously pursue the embedded BI market offer simple Web-based APIs (e.g. REST) with Javascript that interact with a BI engine running on a separate server from your application. This means that the embedded BI application imposes a light footprint on your application: it can be upgraded separately and can run on a separate physical server to optimize performance and scalability.

Time and effort. Although embedding a commercial BI product saves time, don't underestimate the effort required to integrate the tool into your application. You still need to configure the graphical interface, create metrics and populate them with data, establish dimensional hierarchies and drill paths, create analytical workflows that update application content or trigger alerts, and pass through security tokens to ensure users only see authorized reports and data. Often, commercial BI tools lack a critical piece of functionality that an application requires, and either the BI vendor or the application developer or both working together must build it from scratch. All this takes time and effort; embedding is never as quick and easy as most developers expect.

Authoring environments. The best BI tools for embedding offer a simple but powerful authoring interface that makes it easy for developers to create custom reports and dashboards and plug them into their applications. The last thing developers want to do is learn a new development environment so the simpler the better.

And to be honest, some developers would rather not learn a new authoring environment at all; they would prefer to access BI components within their own Java or .NET development environments. And if they develop cloud-based applications, they would rather provision BI services from their platform-as-a-service provider (e.g. Amazon Web Services) and use the same utility- or subscription-based licensing scheme (e.g. hourly usage rate or monthly user subscriptions.) These are the developers I mentioned above who inadvertently slip into building a BI platform.

Summary

A few BI vendors, such as Jaspersoft, Logi Analytics, Pentaho, and Actuate, have positioned their products to appeal to software developers who want to embed BI into their applications. These vendors tip the "build versus buy" scale in favor of embedding third party BI functionality. They offer rich modern APIs, simple yet powerful authoring environments, cloud-friendly server-based processing, and generous licensing terms. Many also have created forums where developers can share ideas, troubleshoot issues, and, in some cases, market their applications and functionality.


Posted June 4, 2013 6:58 AM
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