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Navigating Cultural Considerations in Business Intelligence Deployments

Originally published October 20, 2010

I am currently reading the book Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond. I am reading this book to understand the circumstances that led to the relative extravagance we live in today compared with other cultures. So, as I was reading through this book, I ran across the description of “relative influences,” describing the process of the transition from hunter-gatherer cultures to the food production cultures. I was surprised to learn that it didn’t happen in closely timed increments, and I was particularly surprised to learn that sometimes cultures would revert back to being hunter-gatherers after attempting food production. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with business intelligence (BI) deployments? Well, everything.

According to the book, history has shown that humans can adapt slowly to new things; sometimes even going backwards before fully adopting to “the new thing.” With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, you and I understand that food production is far superior to the elephant hunting of hunter-gatherers; but at the time, humans didn’t understand that. For them, regardless to the potential, the change presented an unknown state and that was an obstacle in fully adapting to “the new thing.” BI deployments are no different, other than the fact that you will not starve to death if you don’t receive your data in a timely manner.

Organizations that have yet to adapt to the reality of BI can have a difficult time navigating the change to “the new thing.” Even though their present reality may be difficult, with inefficient and non-scalable processes to get the most basic of reporting completed, it’s known and comfortable.

Show Your Organization "The Light"

There are a number of methods that will help your company see the potential in business intelligence. It helps to have a really strong vision for what BI could be at your organization, and what it could deliver to make everyone’s life easier.
  1. Start with a vision, an end dream state of what BI could be for your company.

  2. Identify all of the inefficient processes that could be improved if your organization had BI; then quantify them (# people x # hours x $ cost).

  3. Create a road show that outlines all the great things it could be, including the ROI.
Ideally, as you start with the first exercise, you partner with your IT/business counterpart. BI, like many other IT projects, can only be fully adopted if business drives and IT enables. Create a vision that is really exciting and creates a lot of enthusiasm for the potential. Will it create too much? Potentially, but if you really want to get BI going at your organization, that is the risk you will have to take.

As you start to identify all of the efficiencies that BI could create, make sure people understand that you are not replacing them. It should not take an analyst 4 hours each week to run a summary report. The analyst should spend those four hours actually analyzing the data to come up with actionable insights for the company, not just creating a static, non-actionable report. This effort, when done right, will allow an analyst to do his/her "real" job.

Finally you create a "road show" of the information you gathered. You clearly state and show your dream state. You identify and quantify all the areas where BI can create efficiencies, and you visualize the ROI associated with those efforts. Take it on the road, and start garnering enthusiasm and support. The purpose of the road show is to gain enough support to get budget to reach your dream state.

Luke Warm Response

Perhaps you have been down that path. Maybe you have done it countless times, and you have failed to make headway. It happens, and often times through no fault of your own. You may have had the best road show ever, so what gives? Remember when the food producers turned back to hunter-gatherers? There were relative influences that changed their needs and wants. Perhaps they had poor luck at food production. Maybe they got really tired of eating bananas and mangos. What they really wanted was a giraffe steak.

Take a step back and review the landscape and your relative influences. What is your business model like? How’s your competition? Has your leadership changed recently? Has the slow financial recovery made your organization risk averse? All of these things play a role in the ability to adopt a new perspective, whether that be a new strategic direction for the organization or a decision to invest in a data warehouse and BI program. The relative influences that impact your organization also impact your ability to "sell" BI.

Not all hope is lost. You just need to better understand the influences that your company is under. Reconsider how you positioned BI and align it better to those influences. Perhaps, the best thing to do at this point is hold off, and wait for this temporary state to pass (although it took 400 years for the hunter-gatherers to turn back to food production). Or, just start delivering incremental but tangible successes in BI with things like open source tools, procedural changes like a Center of Excellence, or taking advantage of some analytic talent in your organization to create a new perspective on some old data.

Navigating the Other Extreme

Maybe you find yourself in a completely different position. Perhaps BI is well-known and embedded, just not popular. There are two different types of BI programs. The "greenfield" BI program is the one that hasn’t really been started. The organization has no previous attempt or experience and just a lot of excitement around BI. But, the other type, the "brownfield," has baggage. The organization has attempted BI, maybe more than once, and has a long memory. There have been some failures, some successes and some really difficult situations that have been experienced.

These situations are much more difficult to navigate through because you have to understand the impact those experiences have had on your end users. If you are lucky enough to have a lot of optimists in your organization, you may not feel the sting of defeat for very long. But if you have lots of pessimists (or realists that are "pessimists in waiting"), then you will have to win them over one at a time through old-fashioned delivery. But, just as their hunter-gatherer ancestors, they can be won over. Just be patient, give them time and show them that creating repeatable processes has a better long-term success rate.

Regardless to where you are, know that the struggles that we deal with today in the context of BI deployments are an age-old problem. Adapting to change is something humans have done for centuries. We may not be great at it, and sometime we go backwards, but we eventually find our way.

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999

  • Laura MadsenLaura Madsen
    Laura leads the healthcare practice for Lancet, where she brings more than a decade of experience in business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing for healthcare, and a passion for engaging and educating the BI community.  At Lancet, she spearheads strategy and product development for the healthcare sector. She also works with key accounts across the country in the provider, payer, and healthcare manufacturing markets. Laura is the founder of the Healthcare Business Intelligence Summit, an annual event that brings together top hospitals, insurers, and suppliers in the healthcare business intelligence space. Laura is also the author of the popular book, Healthcare Business Intelligence: A Guide to Empowering Successful Data Reporting and Analytics (Wiley, 2012). You may reach her at lmadsen@lancetsoftware.com.

    Editor's note: More healthcare articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Healthcare Channel featuring Laura Madsen and Scott Wanless. Be sure to visit today!

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