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How to Create and Grow a Dynamic Business Intelligence Team

Originally published February 5, 2008

In 2001, I wrote an article for The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) on building data warehousing teams. One aspect of that article that I think warrants further exploration is the dynamic nature of business intelligence (BI) teams.

“Dynamic” is one of those words that can have both a positive and negative connotation. Definition number one: powerful, energetic, forceful. You have a dynamic boss, she has a dynamic personality, they work in a dynamic organization. Definition number two: marked by continuous activity or change. We live in a dynamic economy, they have a dynamic mortgage payment, your paycheck is dynamic. Is dynamic a good thing or a bad thing? What does it mean to create a powerful, energetic, forceful BI team that will grow and change as the business changes?

TDWI developed the Maturity Model Adoption Curve to describe the 6 stages that organizations move through as their business intelligence capabilities grow. From “Prenatal” production reporting to “Sage” analytic services, it depicts the core issue that most organizations struggle with: the team must be in a constant state of change in order to grow and change with the business. Having worked with many organizations, part of the problem is that they are trying to find THE right structure once and for all. The most successful BI initiatives have multiple structures and dynamic roles within a framework that evolves over time.

As a quick assessment of how dynamic and sustainable your BI organization is, take a moment and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do we have a program plan or road map in place that changes as the business needs change? Is it updated and maintained?

  • Do we have project plans that deliver incremental capabilities to the business?

  • Do we have a complete picture of the skills and experience available on our team?

  • Do we have a complete picture of the skills and experience available to our team within the company?

  • Do we understand the career development interests and opportunities of the team?

  • Do we have career development plans in place for individuals on the team?

  • Does every person clearly understand their responsibilities?

  • If team members (likely) fill multiple roles, do they understand the responsibilities associated with that (full or partial) role?

  • Do managers, matrixed managers and project managers have the minimum required authorities?

  • Do we have a clear understanding of who is accountable for what?

  • Does the (current) structure support the goals of the program and project at this time?

  • Is there a joint commitment to achieving the defined outcomes of the BI process?

Focus on Program Planning AND Project Planning

It’s an easy trap to fall into – pressured by urgent business needs, we are sometimes forced to make tradeoffs to balance short-term results and long-term value. Businesses and BI organizations dominated primarily by detailed, action-oriented types tend to deliver results quickly, but may struggle with momentum, integration and long-term implications. Conversely, business intelligence organizations dominated exclusively by big-picture, analytic types tend to consider meaningful alternatives, but may struggle with taking too long, being too conceptual and quickly delivering tangible results.

Business intelligence teams that incorporate different perspectives quickly deliver meaningful results within a context that provides momentum and integration. If the program plan / road map is maintained and continuously aligned with business changes and project plans achieve their objectives, the BI organization will better navigate the changes.

Consider Skills, Experience and Professional Development

You have a team to build and jobs to fill. Candidates submit their resumes, and you hire them based on the job requirements. They take on roles and responsibilities and are successful in their contributions to the business intelligence team. They are good at what they do. You get comfortable, they get comfortable. The business landscape changes, and you have new opportunities and challenges. What does the average BI team do? They add new jobs and hire new people. That may be the best approach, but how often do we forget about all the skills and experience that walked in the door and how we might leverage that talent? Do we recognize skills that are present but not currently utilized, rearrange roles and responsibilities, promote career development for employees? If we have a solid performer in a comfortable role, it is frequently difficult to upset the status quo and look at options.

Business intelligence teams that have an understanding of all the skills and experience of each individual – not just the skills they are currently using – are in a better position to leverage talent. If there are professional development plans in place to grow skills and experience beyond current roles, the ability to address dynamic requirements of the organization is enhanced.

Understand Titles, Roles and Responsibilities

Titles, roles and responsibilities – three common words that are tossed around in status meetings, depicted on organization charts and included in project plans. We all have assumptions about what roles and responsibilities come along with our title. In fact, it is not uncommon for people from different companies or departments to have the same title yet completely different roles.

In a recent TDWI survey, 89 percent of business intelligence professionals reported that they fulfill more than one role on their team – on average, they reported they fulfill 3.25 roles! No wonder it’s so confusing to understand who is responsible for what. As hard as we might try to “get it straight” at the beginning of the BI project, titles, roles and responsibilities change over the life of the initiative . . . and should change.

Successful business intelligence teams recognize that titles are important for status or career paths and that roles are important as a general description of a person’s function. But when it comes down to getting work done, the best teams focus on clarifying responsibilities. If each team member knows what he or she is responsible for, or what they are “on the hook for,” their roles will become a product of their responsibilities, the confusion will subside, and the work will get done.

Based on the changing nature of most business intelligence initiatives, this frequent clarification is not necessarily a conversation that happens once at the beginning and it’s done. Team members need to negotiate overlaps and gaps in responsibilities with each other so that discussions about roles and titles don’t become an obstacle to progress. As the initiative changes, so should responsibilities.

Consider Structure and Partnership

The question “How should we organize our BI effort?” is one of the most frequently asked among managers. Yet, successful business intelligence organizations come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Over the last 16 years, I have seen very successful organizations depicted with variations of hierarchy charts, network diagrams, matrices, circles, squares, arrows and stick figures! Those searching for the Holy Grail of the perfect org chart might be disappointed to discover that one size/one org chart does not fit all. However, what is consistent among successful, sustainable BI organizations is their ability to create adaptive structures that promote shared commitment and continually focus on delivering business value.

Adaptive structures support rapid change, yet provide stability for individuals and the business intelligence effort. Adaptive organizations build competencies in key skills and then structure specific task-focused projects by deploying those skills as needed. Adaptive organizations have clear, but changing, roles and responsibilities. They plan for knowledge transfer and career development. Adaptive organizations rely on formal communication that follows organizational lines, but cultivate informal communication laterally in support of their goals. Adaptive organizational structures accommodate long-term planning and incremental results.

Although you frequently hear the words “business sponsorship,” a phrase that frequently implies money or intellectual support, perhaps a more important word is partnership. Partnership means that business and IT are jointly committed to the success of the business intelligence organization. Partnership means that business people step from their functional boxes on the org chart to become an integral part of the BI team. Similarly, IT people step out of their boxes to understand the business context and become an integral part of the BI team. Unfortunately, that does not always happen.

You hear it at all levels of the organization. “If THEY would just deliver.” “If THEY would just give better direction.” “If THEY would just step up to the challenge.” The biggest problem with pointing fingers at THEM is that we hand over responsibility for ourselves, the project and the organization to THEM.

If problems are always out there and we have no part in creating them, we become poor, helpless, suffering victims of THEM. If we don’t see ourselves as victims of these problems but as co-creators of them, we have to admit we are playing a part in the perpetuation of the problems. We see that these problems persist because of things we do or don’t do, and that if we changed what we did, we might be able to make the problems go away.

So the choice becomes: Do I point the finger at someone else or do I point the finger at myself? Do I count on someone else to get it fixed or do whatever it takes to get it fixed? Do I waste my energy blaming others, or do I spend my energy figuring out a strategy to create a different outcome?

If you’re a customer wishing THEY would just deliver, what can you do to enable the business intelligence team to provide you with the quality system and service you want? If you’re a team member wishing THEY would give better direction, what can you do to get involved, understand their situation and propose solutions that will move the data warehouse forward? If you're a manager wishing THEY would step up to the challenge, what can you do to create an environment where you involve them, ask for help, share information and make it possible for them to take more responsibility for the project?

Pointing fingers can create interesting workplace drama, but it is a poor problem-solving strategy. If WE are both committed to a successful business intelligence initiative, what am I doing and what are you doing? What is OUR team doing? Dynamic organizations leverage relationships to work through these issues and adapt and embrace the changes.

  • Maureen ClarryMaureen Clarry

    Maureen is the Founder and President/CEO of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network (CONNECT), an Xtivia company. CONNECT specializes in data, technical, and organizational solutions for business intelligence. Maureen has been on the faculty of TDWI since 1998, served on the Board for the Colorado Chapter of TDWI, and participates on the Data Warehousing Advisory Board for the University of Denver. CONNECT has been recognized as the South Metro Denver Small Business of the Year, the Top 25 Women Owned and Top 150 Privately Owned Businesses in Colorado. Maureen can be reached at mclarry@connectknowledge.com or 303-730-7171, ext. 102.

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

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