This is an article from the August 2006 issue of DM Review's Extended Edition. Click on this link for more information on DMR Extended Edition or to download this entire issue in a PDF format. 

A recent Gartner survey shows that in 2006, business intelligence was number 1 on the priority list for CIOs.1 Executives are increasingly discovering the value of decision support systems and funding continued development. But most of us are not getting the full value from our BI systems. We have access to additional data and are able to answer additional business questions, but are we answering them quickly, consistently and accurately?

Focus Turns Strategic

Over the past 10 years, a lot of emphasis has been placed on building out the corporate data warehouse. Hundreds of articles have been written to help you choose the right tools, develop the right models and add the right applications.

More recently, the focus has turned from technical to strategic. The importance of governance and executive sponsorship has come to light. Return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO) have become popular buzzwords in BI. These strategic components, while important, do not tap into the incremental value that comes from the business decisions made through increased usage of your BI investment.

The more attention your BI program gets from the business, the greater the need for an interpreter to facilitate conversations between IT and the business (typically executives). The executives must understand the value the program will offer in return for their sponsoring and funding the program. IT must understand what the business really is asking for in order to develop a solution that meets the business needs. Both groups need a champion to bring them together and help each manage solid expectations. The best place to start is to put together a center of excellence (CoE) to support the end users.

The BI Center of Excellence

While the IT team is developing additional releases to the data warehouse, the CoE will keep your users engaged and productive. The CoE covers the functions that are truly end-user facing, allowing the IT team to concentrate on new development. Figure 1 shows the variety of functions that the CoE manages. Resources in the CoE need a special mix of skill sets, including the technical skills to understand SQL, data models and analytical tools as well as business skills to understand the types of analysis and needs of the business. Usually, the CoE team is either placed in IT next to the development team or in a business-unit neutral organization such as finance. Either way, the CoE must straddle both the business and technical organizations to be truly successful.

Figure 1: CoE-Managed Functions

CoE Help Desk

An important first step is to establish a point of contact. This person interfaces directly with the end users and provides a first level of triage. This person answers and directs end-user phone calls and email. Some requests can be satisfied immediately, such as questions about tools and data or when the next training class is. When the question or request is more complicated, it is routed to the next level of support.

There are also many opportunities for self-service for your end users. By making use of your corporate intranet and setting up a BI Web site, you can post all kinds of helpful information, such as documentation, how to get access to tools and data, the training and events calendar, data quality issues, load status and the helpline email box. Your users will appreciate being able to get this information quickly and conveniently.

Communication and Marketing

Communication provides the users with information about the BI program, from system status to strategic plans. On-the-spot emails work well for immediate needs, such as system issues, whereas general information is best communicated through a newsletter format. While you should use the Web site to provide static as well as current news, you may always need to send email communication for critical items and then refer customers to Web site for more details.

Evangelizing the BI program to the user community at large is another form of communication. One way to do this is to hold BI town hall meetings, where users are offered incentives to share their success stories. You will find that users trust other users. BI user groups are another way for the CoE to share bigger topics in BI that are best done in person. These can include new product demos, subject area focus, tips and tricks or other educational topics.

End-User Training

Educating end users is probably one of the biggest drivers toward getting increased usage and value out of your BI systems. Your CoE is well positioned to develop a training program that supports the use of both the tools and the data. Because the team is comprised of BI subject matter experts, they are naturally the ones to impart that knowledge to the users.

As you develop your training program, consider that end users need training in both tools and data. Based on your available resources, you can determine whether to combine these or teach them separately. Be sure your program addresses logistics - whether to use a dedicated training environment - and tracking metrics such as attendance and satisfaction.

If you have a corporate training department, investigate how they may be able to help you establish your training program.

Complex Ad Hoc Support

It is no surprise that the more your end users know, the more complex their questions become. There comes a point where the user's business analysis needs have surpassed their capabilities to answer them. This is where the CoE can really add value by helping the business to solve those complex questions. The CoE should have advanced skills and knowledge, and should continually provide feedback into the business. Some business groups will have their own power users and some may not. The CoE can help fill the gaps and drive more sophisticated solutions that continue to deliver additional value from the BI program.

Data Stewardship

While driving additional knowledge and skills into the business, the CoE has a responsibility to help ensure the data is treated as a valuable asset. The data stewardship role resides in the CoE and is critical to ensuring that the data is accurate and consistently used.

The data steward covers three key areas:

  • Metadata - Driving consistent business definitions which can be published as a part of metadata.
  • Proactive data quality - Establishing data quality (DQ) tolerance levels with the business and getting data elements monitored.
  • Reactive DQ - Leading DQ initiatives; prioritizing issues and providing communication to the business.

A steward also helps drive the development of DQ monitoring into the BI systems. Data stewardship is a very important and necessary function and because it touches both the business and IT, is best driven through the CoE.

Knowledge Management

The CoE drives knowledge management (KM) as a part of the BI program. It is not enough these days to focus on structured, transactional data alone. Information comes from all kinds of sources, including documents, Web pages or even the minds of other workers.

There are a number of software tools that make sharing knowledge easier. There are document management tools that track and share different types of documents. There are Web-based portals that can serve as a customized user desktop to provide access to the various types of information needed to perform the job. While KM has not typically been thought of as being in the BI space, it acts as yet another avenue of information for the user.

Governance and BI Lifecycle

Governance for your BI program is critical. Governance provides direction for growth, including ownership of the strategic roadmap. Governance starts at the top with C-level executives who sponsor, fund and support BI. Of course there is continual input from the end users, which the CoE must assemble and present back to the formal governance committees.

As new work begins, the CoE must participate in the development lifecycle. It needs to be part of the team that ensures training plans are developed, requirements are understood and will meet the business needs, data and metric tolerances are defined and user acceptance test plans are created and carried out. The CoE also communicates regularly to the business, letting them know the progress of any new releases.

Research and Development

Because your CoE works directly with the end users, they are often in a position to help find quick solutions or develop prototypes for longer-term solutions. As the CoE becomes the business expert, it can quickly develop sample applications for various business needs. This prototyping helps flush out requirements early, leaving less chance for rework and missed expectations. Many times these quick solutions can provide on-the-spot value to the business. At the point in time where the application is ready to become a permanent part of the BI landscape, the requirements are shared with IT, and the two teams partner through development to completion.

Statistical Analysis

Many more companies today are finding value by exploiting their data with statistical tools. As they work at understanding their customer or their business processes, they build predictive and descriptive models to help them find relationships and trends in the data that are not otherwise evident.

For many companies, statisticians are employed in a decentralized fashion. Because the CoE represents the needs of the corporation at large, it makes sense to have a centralized group of statisticians who drive consistent methodology. This group shares best practices across the statistical and analytical community and drives standards and subject matter expertise in statistical tools.

Given the increased focus on budgets and the pressure to keep costs down, it makes sense to leverage the resources you already have. By assembling a team of BI resources who have both business and technical skills, you will maximize the value of your BI systems. The CoE drives consistent usage and knowledge of the data back into the business, which in turn produces more accurate analysis for making good business decisions.


  1. Gartner Inc. 2006 CIO Survey. June 2006.

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