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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.

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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