Let's talk about a few clear steps any business can take when setting up a BI center of excellence in order to position the group for success.

As the saying goes, "Well begun is half done." First, define a clear charter and ensure that distinct roles and responsibilities are delineated at startup. (See the November 2008 column "Getting Data in, Getting Information Out" for more on roles and responsiblities.) There are many options for constructing the COE and for determining who within the organization actually builds BI applications. Some very effective COE organizations simply set and document best practices and provide guidance to distributed application teams across the organization. Others provide guidance but are also responsible for ensuring that distributed application teams comply with documented policies and conduct project reviews and spot audits to ensure compliance is actually met. In a third variation, the COE documents best practices, owns some of the development work and provides services to business units that wish to hire them to do the work on data subjects outside of their direct ownership. Last, the COE provides all BI development work across the organization. Each construct is valid and can result in an effective COE. But given these variations, it is imperative that a clear charter and mission for the group are established. The charter should explicitly describe what the COE will and will not do. If COE services are not mandated, terms and conditions for acquiring these services should also be spelled out, including charge-back terms and allocated overhead costs.

If the COE does not have clearly defined and communicated areas of focus, the organization can expect one of two equally negative realities:

  • Turf wars in which the COE, business units and other IT groups fight about who owns data, definitions, standards, quality, funding and development responsibility, or;
  • Under-laps where critical processes are left out of all parties' scope of focus.

The second success factor is to ensure that culture and communications are considered from the start. To be effective, the COE must be structured to function well within the existing culture of the organization. While it is possible to change an organization's customs through effective change management (including strong leadership, proper training and communication, and targeted metrics) it is difficult to effect any change that is not consistent with the basic culture of the company. Existing levels of cooperation between business units, relationships between IT and the business, historic technology funding and cost allocation methods, and the strength of the governance committee must all be taken into consideration.
If your organization is one where business buy-in is high, cooperation is good and resources are scarce, you might want to start with a model where the COE provides training, templates, guidance and deliverable reviews but the actual project work is done locally. If you can't ensure cooperation across units, you might focus on developing strong governance to secure authority for the program while also building a central COE that takes responsibility for doing the work, developing the templates and documenting best practices.

Communicating early and often is key to ongoing success. The fact that the data warehouse is viewed as very expensive is a problem that has plagued BI programs since their inception. It is not enough for the COE to merely integrate data and develop a business analytics environment. To fully leverage information for corporate value, the COE needs to communicate with the organization in various ways.

One way is to regularly interact with the business and technical community. Through these interactions, COE team members will become more aware of satisfaction levels, strengths and weaknesses of the existing environment, and benefits that are being received. Along the way, those in the COE will learn of unique uses of information and be in position to inform others of opportunities to further leverage information in the BI environment. The COE should pursue multiple forms of communication: newsletters with information about internal activities and activities elsewhere, and developer or user forums where people can exchange ideas and techniques.
The last success factor is to know the program's limitations and develop emergency appeal processes for use when needed. For most business requests, the COE will follow its documented procedures and processes. Yet situations will arise when the business must have a set of data, report, analytic result or application created unexpectedly. The process should include a recognized approach for evaluating an emergency so that, with backing of the governance body, the emergency request is allowed or rejected. To pursue an emergency, the COE may need to shortcut its own processes and procedures to avoid an end run by the business. The key to success in this situation is to ensure that, if a shortcut is taken, the appropriate long-term solution is pursued once the emergency is handled. Once that solution is in place, the shortcut is then removed and no longer used.

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