An Incomplete Education: How Not to Get Your Team Up To Speed on Business Performance Management

Originally published July 14, 2009

When the corporate edict comes down to implement business performance management (BPM), one of the first things the project leader needs to do is quickly get educated. Once they have formed a core team, they need to get this extended group on the same page from a knowledge perspective as well. The challenge is how to do this quickly, cost-effectively and comprehensively.

There are many facets to the type of education that is needed. For some companies, it starts with the basics: What is business performance management and what can it do for you? This sounds simple enough; but depending on where you go to get educated, you could come away with the belief that performance management is just a dashboard or just a balanced scorecard. Alternatively, you might learn that business performance management is all about compliance and profitability. Perhaps you will be led to believe BPM is simply budgeting and planning. Of course, each one of these is only partially correct. Beyond the basics, you and the team will need to learn what is really possible with business performance management and what is just vendor hype and wishful thinking.

It’s also always a good idea to get educated on best practices – what has worked and what has failed for the companies that have gone before. Of course, you’ll also want to understand the technology landscape for business performance management. More specifically, you’ll need to know what different types of vendors address this category and the pros and cons of each. In addition, it is important to understand which components of business performance management are best suited to pre-built applications and which are best built in house using business intelligence toolsets. It is also necessary to learn about the human resource challenges of gaining company-wide acceptance and buy-in as well as dealing with the shift to a more performance-oriented culture. Obviously, quite a bit of knowledge needs to be acquired early on in the project life cycle. It may seem hard to believe, but there is a way to get most of this education from a single source. More about that later.

Now let’s look at the approaches most companies take to gain the necessary knowledge. The typical first step is to identify a leading performance management vendor and visit their website. The vendor, of course, will tout all the benefits of business performance management and highlight how their software delivers them. You may even view a demo of their product. This is a good introduction, but it is clearly limited in scope, very high level, and also biased towards that vendor’s offering. If the vendor focuses on only one slice of performance management, that is all you will see. You will come away with a false impression of what business performance management is and probably a slightly exaggerated perspective on what it can do for you. To begin to get some depth and to get away from the obvious vendor biases, most people move on to downloading white papers and attending webcasts. While this will provide more information, it is still too high level and, although not as biased as the marketing material on vendor sites, there is still only a narrow viewpoint presented. The best white papers and webcasts utilize an independent third-party expert as the author or presenter. However, since most of these are vendor-sponsored, the third-party expert will usually focus on beliefs that are in sync with the messages of the sponsoring vendor. So, for example, if the webcast or white paper is being underwritten by a software-as-a-service (SaaS) BPM vendor, the messages will likely focus on the benefits of this approach. That same expert may also do work for a non-SaaS vendor and may discuss their views on the downside of the SaaS approach for performance management. People who don’t read both white papers or attend both webcasts end up with a lopsided view of the issue. Also, keep in mind that these experts are usually research analysts, consultants and authors who have their own materials and services to sell. The documents and sessions they are involved with give a taste of their expertise and only the tip of the iceberg of the knowledge you need. It is their hope that after reading their materials or viewing their webcast you will move on to paying for their expertise. That’s fair, but many companies foolishly choose to not spend money on education and expertise and end up utilizing these free, superficial materials as their core knowledge base for this mission-critical application.

Well-run companies though, understand the value of education and how it can increase productivity and help avoid large, costly missteps and therefore are willing to invest in it. The challenge is how to spend allocated education funds. Some companies may be enticed to attend vendor user conferences. If they believe a leading vendor may be a fit for them, they will use the conference as a way to gain both BPM depth and more product knowledge. While they may be given free passes to the event, they will often have to pay for their hotel room and airfare, although many companies are establishing logical ethics-based rules that disallow employees from accepting these types of “gifts.” Either way, for a sizeable team, these costs can add up. As it turns out, these events may not be that valuable in the pursuit of performance management knowledge. Most sessions are designed for users of the product and will go into depth on various implementation approaches. If your goal is trying to gain an upfront education as you embark upon your project, this level of “bits and bytes” detail may not be appropriate. A broader overview of business performance management or even a discussion of the product’s features/benefits will be in short supply since the bulk of the audience already knows that. Perhaps a salesman will spend some time with you discussing the product, but did you really have to fly there and take a hotel room to meet with your sales rep? One important piece of knowledge you can get out of these user conferences can come from the announcements of new releases and future product plans. While they tout what will be coming soon, you can read into it that those capabilities are not up to snuff or are non-existent in the current version that you would be buying. Another thing you can try to do is meet with some customers at mealtime or in the hallways to get the real scoop on how their implementations fared and how the product now works. Be aware though that the vendor knows who their unhappiest customers are and often assign a dedicated support person to keep them away from prospects and out of trouble.

Another form of paid education is industry conferences. In the business performance management world, some are IT focused, some are finance/business-unit focused. That in itself is a problem because your team should be a mix of both, and this makes attending the same conference and getting the same education unlikely. These industry conferences, while a great improvement over vendor user conferences, still have their shortcomings. For one thing, they cover many topics and probably only a handful will prove useful to you. If you look at the cost to attend the conference (registration, airfare, hotel, meals, even the cost to the company of the team being out of the office) and identify the sessions that are truly relevant, you will probably find that those few sessions turn out to be very costly. Many of these conferences feature noted authors and user case studies. On the surface this sounds great. The reality is a little different. The authors will usually share one main idea from their book and then encourage you to buy the book. Even if the book is given away free at the conference, it would have been much cheaper to just stay home and buy the book. While having your copy signed by the author at the conference may be exciting, it does little to increase its educational value. User case studies may not be all they are cracked up to be. In some cases, they are there because a sponsoring vendor brought them along to tell the world how great their product is. As a result, these don’t provide the unbiased insights you should be looking for. In other cases, the user spends half the time telling you what their company does and how it works and the other half telling you what a great job they did working around their company’s shortcomings. While sometimes entertaining, only a handful of re-usable best practices may emerge, and those may not apply to your situation.

So, where do you get the most bang for your buck and the most complete business performance management education? From an in-house, customized BPM master class. Many BPM expert consulting companies now offer this. You usually get to choose the topics from a lengthy list of areas about which the firm has knowledge. This avoids wasting time with or paying for topics that don’t apply. It can cover a broad range from BPM basics, to best practices, to real-world user examples, to cultural challenges, to the vendor landscape itself. By having the class in house with just your company, you save travel time and money as well ensure the focus will be on your team and their questions. Some firms even offer this as more of an interactive workshop where the instructor will help you see how the principles discussed would apply to the specifics of your business. This is the most cost-effective and comprehensive approach to getting your team up to speed and ready for BPM.

Education is vital for business performance management success. You get what you pay for, and using free knowledge from the Internet to steer a mission-critical six-to-seven figure project just does not make sense. Even when the decision is made to fund the team’s education, you need to make sure those dollars are spent effectively. Once the key team members are up to speed and share the same knowledge, the project will proceed much more smoothly. While success can never be guaranteed, a solid educational foundation certainly improves your odds. And what company can’t benefit from improved odds of success on an important project in today’s economy?


  • Craig SchiffCraig Schiff

    Craig, President and CEO of BPM Partners, is a pioneer in business performance management (BPM). Craig helped create and define the field as it evolved from business intelligence and analytic applications into BPM. He has worked with BPM and related technologies for more than 20 years, first as a founding member at IMRS/Hyperion Software (now Hyperion Solutions) and later cofounded OutlookSoft where he was President and CEO.

    Craig is a frequent author on BPM topics and monthly columnist for the BeyeNETWORK. He has led several jointly produced webcasts with Business Finance Magazine including "Beyond the Hype: The Truth about BPM Vendors," the three-part vendor review entitled "BPM Xpo" and "BPM 101: Navigating the Treacherous Waters of Business Performance Management." He is a recipient of the prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. BPM Partners is a vendor-independent professional services firm focused exclusively on BPM, providing expertise that helps companies successfully evaluate and deploy BPM systems. Craig can be reached at cschiff@bpmpartners.com.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Craig's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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