Business Intelligence and Different Cultures

Originally published August 29, 2006

When business intelligence (BI) projects fail – and let’s face it, they do fail from time to time – there can be many different reasons. One reason may be that the data quality has been grossly overestimated, something that is often the case as data quality in general is always worse than anyone would like to think. Another reason may be technical aspects, even though this is rarely the main reason for business intelligence failure. Business intelligence projects may also fail because of poor organization, as the quality of an organization with its office politics can also be worse than anyone would like to think. 

The truth is that many business intelligence projects fail because the organization is not ready to implement or capable of implementing BI. The reasons are cultural, where each organization usually has its own quirks and ways of working. Cultural differences might also exist on a more global scale, where different countries tend to do things differently from each other. 

For example, business intelligence in Scandinavia is quite up to date with the latest developments. Why? Probably because Scandinavian countries are relatively uncorrupted, transparent, equal and pragmatic. It might be boring, but then again, it works. Just like Swedish tennis players. 

France, on the other hand, is altogether a different story. In order to live up to égalité, everyone gets to say something. This “something” is often quite lengthy, off the actual subject and probably with a touch of some earlier experience that no one else can recognize. In the end, the manager decides, and the project moves on. And on. And on. In the end, however, it might work, and everyone will then use the experience from this BI project when they give their opinion about the next project. 

And then, of course, we have the Americans. After all, most business intelligence, whether it is tools, methodology, or concepts, comes from the New World – the land of marketing, where the same concept can be invented over and over again as necessary. This superior ability at marketing is also a reason why most success stories come from the U.S. The situation is probably also pushing Americans to be more open and publicize how they work, whereas other countries can remain more silent – and paranoid – toward their competitors. The end result of this efficient marketing is that we get the impression that it all works – which it may. 

Then there is Switzerland. The reason there is not much news coming from Switzerland is because people in Switzerland avoid conflicts to a much larger extent than anywhere else in the world. The result may be inefficiency, but better inefficiency than conflict. Consequently, business intelligence will seem to work here too – because if it does not, few are likely to mention this and thus risk a conflict. 

And then we have Japan. The combination of consensus and hierarchies can mean a very practical approach to busines intelligence; it is given to whoever can actually act on the information. If you cannot make a decision, why would you need the information? Why spend time and effort in such situations? 

So, what can be practically deducted from these local differences? That culture with its inherent political landscape, whether it is generalized for a country or more specific for an organization, may be the main obstacle/key to success. Consequently, there is no standard method/approach that will do the trick. It is not rocket science to conclude this, yet far too many BI projects fail because of a mismatch between the BI approach and the organization’s culture. 

Even though there are many diverse cultures on different levels, it seems as though excuses when things go wrong can be quite universal. The best excuse I have ever heard came from a truly experienced project manager, who once said about a project that was about to go overboard: “There are doubts whether the project can be delayed on time.”  

What does “delayed on time” mean? Who knows? But given different cultures, one better learn how to say it in at least eight different languages.  

Maybe the way to ease the understanding of cultural complexity – where busines intelligence should obviously somehow be the tool, as business intelligence is meant to make sense out of complexity – would be to launch a counterculture where everything is merged into one. And if you think this seems like some true complexity, all I can do is to defer to Jerry Garcia: “It's pretty clear now that what looked like it might have been some kind of counterculture is, in reality, just the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness.” 

So, let’s try to take different cultures into account – whether they are on a national or organizational level – before implementing business intelligence. Otherwise, now that Jerry Garcia has been mentioned, many BI projects will go on looking like they are run by psychedelic figures under the influence of illicit plants – plants that may come from many different countries and cultures.

  • Gabriel Fuchs

    Gabriel has more than ten years of experience in all aspects of the business intelligence value chain. He has witnessed all the hype, seen technologies come and go, and observes that basics still surprisingly often rule in the business intelligence world. Gabriel’s somewhat ironic writings are based on his own personal experience and imagination, and do not reflect the situation at any particular company. 

    Gabriel is a renowned expert within strategic IT solutions, including business intelligence, performance management and business analytics. He has worked within a range of different industries and activities all over Europe, helping organizations align key operational activities with the strategic goals. His book, Dealing with Nasty Colleagues: The Art of Winning in Office Politics While Still Getting the Job Done, can be ordered at http://www.amazon.co.uk/. Gabriel can be reached at sgfuchs@bluewin.ch.

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