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A Business Context for Agile Business Intelligence

Originally published September 21, 2010

Welcome to my first article for my Agile BI Expert Channel on BeyeNETWORK. As your host and moderator, my goal is to share with you the current trends and techniques of agile business intelligence and engage you in the discussion.

Let’s start with a quick definition of agility:

  1. Marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace

  2. Having a quick resourceful and adaptable character 
Synonyms include: dexterity, deftness, nimbleness and spryness.

Business Agility Has Become a Way of Life

In the face of uncertain economic times, globalization and the transition to a fully digital age, agility has become a business mandate and a new path forward to competitive advantage. Agile businesses recognize that change is constant, and adapting quickly to new demand for products and/or services represents a golden opportunity to win market share.

Our job as business intelligence (BI) professionals is to assist our business partners in capitalizing on these opportunities while wrestling with two competing forces: the increasing volume of data and the need to distill this tsunami of data into precise, actionable key performance indicators (KPIs) and analytics. For better or for worse, the need itself is a rapidly moving target – increasing competitive pressures lead business managers to ask for new analyses and visualization approaches on a weekly basis.

The reality is that as a result of market forces, demand for better analytics, dashboards and scorecards in real time is being generated everywhere in the enterprise (executive, sales, marketing, finance, legal, supply chain, human resources, and even IT).

Time is of the essence and new methods are needed to deliver in a more nimble manner. This is particularly true for analytical solutions that are a key component to driving revenue and moving the business ahead of the competition. We are entering a golden age of business intelligence/decision intelligence that I believe will become pervasive and embedded into every business activity. In order for your IT organizations to support business agility, you must, in turn, embrace Agile BI methods and align your people, processes and tools to meet the demand and deliver business value.

A Better Way of Delivering BI Solutions

Past methods for delivering business intelligence and data warehouse (BI/DW) solutions have proven to be inefficient and overly expensive. While the reasons are many, several common complaints are prevalent across the companies I have worked with:
  • BI projects are too labor intensive and take too long to deliver. The traditional development lifecycle and methods don’t lend themselves to quick turnaround times. They involve disciplines and technologies that traditionally have not been well integrated and require non-value added human involvement for each and every step.

  • Projects are driven by IT rather than by the business and/or they are data-driven rather than based on the demands of the market.

  • Reporting and analysis tools are not integrated because of the tools themselves or as a result of a poorly implemented BI program.

  • There is a lack of consistency between monitoring, analysis and detail reporting due to poor data lineage and/or the lack of common definitions (lack of data stewardship).
An “agile” approach to building data warehouse and business intelligence solutions allows the business to react quickly to unanticipated market conditions. Agile BI methods allow us to improve our velocity by building reusable objects, eliminating unnecessary processes and shrinking our work cycles to deliver BI solutions at the speed of business.

The Business Imperatives

No matter how we view agility and BI/DW, one core tenet forms the foundation of everything we do: Business imperatives define what the business intelligence community needs to do. This fundamental principle holds true at the strategic level, the program level and the project level. So, in order to put Agile BI into the proper context, we need to first understand the business imperatives. While many books have been written about businesses and their drivers, they can be distilled into four core themes:
  1. Drive Corporate Revenue

  2. Reduce Operational Costs

  3. Improve Customer Service

  4. Maintain Financial Controls
In order to help the business become more agile, analytical solutions must provide the linkage needed to support these imperatives.

The following table provides a very brief overview of the process a business might go through to define the contents of a BI project.

So what does all of this have to do with Agile BI? In a nutshell, the core tenets of Agile delivery can be summed up by two of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind,” and “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”1 We must understand and document the business needs as the first step in Agile BI before we try to deliver anything. We can incorporate this philosophy in the Agile BI framework by insisting that it contain these characteristics:
  • Business and IT friendly

  • Lean

  • Repeatable

  • With high quality

  • Low cost
When Agile BI methods do indeed focus on these key characteristics, good things tend to happen. According to Tom Hammergren, founder of Balanced Insight, Inc., a provider of industry leading Agile BI delivery software, “Jim’s concepts of Agile BI are market leading and game changing. Having worked closely with him, I appreciate the level of effort and detail he has applied to lead the market in a new, more productive direction that will have a profound impact on business results.”

Agile methods allow us to link our knowledge of the business with our understanding of the business data because it’s not about the data, it’s not about the source systems; it’s about business enablement! The technical and data components will sort themselves out through the application of Agile methods. Ralph Hughes of Ceregenics describes this linkage in his recent book Agile Data Warehousing  as Front-end and Back-end Value Chains and which I will refer to as Business and Technical Value Chains. According to Ralph, “Anyone who doubts whether Agile methods can be applied to data warehousing and business intelligence should look at what Jim and his team have achieved in a very short time. They have taken the framework laid out in our Agile Data Warehousing book and applied it with precision and ingenuity to develop scores of Agile teams that steadily crank out BI/DW modules with rock-solid quality and breathtaking speed.”

In future articles we’ll explore the landscape of agility from both the business and technical perspectives. We’ll explain how Agile BI works within the context of value chains and how it can peacefully coexist in the broader software development lifecycle (SDLC). I look forward to discussing how Agile BI methods can lead to breakthrough performance and cost savings as we head down "The Path to Agility."

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989, by Stephen R. Covey

  • Jim GalloJim Gallo
    Jim is  National Director, Vice President, Business Analytics at Information Control Corporation (ICC), a firm focused on reducing the cost of developing BI solutions. Jim and the ICC team have enabled companies to increase the velocity of their development by adopting Agile methods for BI, with a particular focus on turning theory into reality.

    Jim is a recognized expert and has published a number of articles on the practical realities of business intelligence and data warehousing. He is a regular speaker at conferences and industry-related events. He has led a number of large, complex BI projects for Fortune 1000 companies in addition to delivering value to federal and state governments and international clients. For two years in a row, Jim has been named IBM Champion for Information Integration and Federation. He can be reached at jgallo@iccohio.com.

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

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