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Business Intelligence Continuums

  • March 01 2004, 1:00am EST

From 1967 to 1973, Geert Hofstede developed a set of descriptors of national cultures. This set of descriptors has become a helpful reference when planning a business trip to a foreign culture. Each country is measured on where it falls along a set of several continuums such as individualism versus collectivism, the spread of power among the population, uncertainty as a part of life, masculine versus feminine orientation and short-term versus long-term orientation.

By comparing national profiles that were presented in the study without judgment, you can predict where conflicts of priority will arise and where misunderstandings will occur. Where two countries are similar in profile, there should be little disagreement. However, where two countries have great divergence in their profiles, there will clearly be some level of disagreement as to how to handle situations that affect both countries.

Likewise, every organization has its own unique culture or set of values that differentiate it from other organizations. Additionally, we have all experienced differences of opinion at the individual level. These differences of opinion manifest themselves within business intelligence programs, often on a daily basis.

Business intelligence continuums include top-down versus bottom-up methodology, normalized versus dimensional modeling, presence or absence of meta data, batch versus real-time ETL (extract, transform and load), OLAP (online analytical processing) versus reports, Web versus client/server, mass versus selective deployment, proactive versus reactive data quality, presence or absence of data marts, enterprise versus business unit coverage and more.

While healthy debate about issues is certainly important, too often business intelligence (BI) programs become embroiled in points of disagreement and spend innumerable cycles on an issue that simply does not have a measurable impact on the bottom line. Even those critically important issues often lack a healthy means for resolution and drag out timelines. Without a procedural means to arrive at conclusions, programs can flounder. Often, polarization of opinion occurs in order to emphasize an opinion, which only puts distance to the answer. For example, a person who believes that dimensional modeling is valuable "most" but not all of the time could take a posturing that "all" the modeling needs to be dimensional to counteract a strong influencer advocating an all-normalized solution. The resultant polarization will delay the ultimate continuum decision.

You don't have to be at one end or the other of any continuum to have an effective program. The key is striking a balance and acting on the decision. It's also key to verbalize, record and take directed action with a decision as opposed to burying an issue and hoping that it goes away.

There are numerous vehicles available to business intelligence programs to help arrive at decisions and determine the points on each continuum that make sense. The first is the use of guiding principles.

Guiding principles should be shared with key information technology (IT) management and business constituents. When decisions need to be made, as they always do, team members can refer to these principles that guide decision making in the program. Mature organizations (at higher levels of the capability maturity model) have created processes and seldom treat each decision as a one-time event.

It is possible that there will not be universal agreement on all principles. However, the team needs to speak to the business community with one voice. The place to arbitrate the principles is within the team. When decisions are made, they should be firm, yet subject to revisitation as appropriate in 6 to 12 months. At that time, the experience of actually committing to a course of action and trying it in the environment will weigh heavily.

Determination of the guiding principles can be difficult, but is most effectively done in a spirit of compromise and in absence of the stress of the need to make an immediate decision. Experienced leadership can guide a team through the process for arriving at their guiding principles.

Both data stewardship and its cousin, program governance, are designed to put decisions into the correct decision-makers' hands. In these cases, it is business decisions being rightfully put into business hands. Although it may seem as though you are deciding how to decide how to decide, rules of engagement should be formed for these groups.

Good people diverge from one another on many of the business intelligence continuums of our day. For each of these, a program must choose its course of action. Understanding the need to compromise in order to keep the program iterative and moving forward is an important first step for each business intelligence practitioner. Laying the groundwork for participation in this process is an essential part of business intelligence leadership.

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