For all the lessons of big technology investments, there is a lingering perception that businesses are on the verge of automating their way to productivity. A variety of finance, HR, content management and portal applications have certainly greased the rails of day-to-day business, but they have also brought the need for new skills, and added levels of responsibility to existing positions. An example of this is enterprise resource planning, which automated transactions but - despite the expectations of many - did little or nothing to automate processes. ERP was an evolutionary step that spawned a much greater number of supporting applications, all with related job requirements. Like a M.C. Escher drawing, Business Intelligence initiatives never seem to come to an end point. Executing a successful business intelligence initiative inevitably leverages technology, which in turn spawns roles more multi-dimensional and labor intensive than the jobs it eliminates. Gartner Inc. confirmed this at its recent Chicago BI summit, releasing a survey that finds larger enterprises will need two to three times as many business intelligence personnel by 2008 as they needed last year.

As we noted in the April issue of BI Review, human resources are increasingly being taxed in areas of business intelligence for both simple and complex tasks. "You'll bring on more subject matter and external sources, you'll expand usage not only to internal constituents but to external ones include customers, suppliers, shareholders, government agencies and maybe the public at large," according to Howard Dresner, VP and research fellow at Gartner Inc. "Fundamentally, organizations aren't prepared for that and honestly, most aren't doing a good job managing internal demands for BI."

Low user penetration aside, the heavy lifting of building BI infrastructure hasn't lifted either, despite the appearance of labor saving applications such as ETL tools. The problem simply goes beyond figuring out how to combine data from one repository with that of another. In management-speak, this results in lowered expectations. "Someone still has to do the business analysis, the data analysis, manage the whole process, so instead of writing COBOL we're writing ETL scripts," says Dresner. "It's better but it still hasn't relieved us of the labor intensive part of the job which is, what the hell are we trying to track?"

In high-performing organizations, BI initiatives are typically led by rare and valuable individuals who understand the needs of business and the ability of technology to serve them. In the more common absence of a gifted manager, users follow departmental initiatives, wait for dated reports or revert to spreadsheet abuse, cut-and paste exercises that are empirically unsound. Such exercises often lead enterprises to look for yet another tool to replace Excel or Access, but Dresner says the better approach is a proper top-down assessment of what is under examination, and what kind of insight users really need. "Then you look from the bottom up at your data inventory, the technologies and expertise you do have."

Given that the ROI of many projects - such as improving customer satisfaction - are hard to quantify, sponsorship from senior management is central to the equation, and a requirement for ending the fragmented departmental efforts that continue to spread in organizations. Gartner has long advocated the business intelligence competency center, which combines business involvement with technology experts in the buzzword categories like database, analytics, graphic presentation and so on.

Such a sponsored, strategic investment consolidates goals and provides a single place to go for BI needs. Professional organizations like the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals also advocate a top-down and coordinated approach. SCIP calls its own approach LEAN: for Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Networking. "A networked approach to competitive intelligence has merits but also risks," says Alexander Graham, executive director at SCIP. "You have to educate all who are interested, from entry-level analysts to the C-level."

While the competency center is taking hold in some organizations, most management hierarchies still don't appreciate the labor-intensive requirements for success. Dresner expects this shortfall to stretch into the foreseeable future. "I just had a conversation with a client who really wants to do a better job of driving business intelligence at a more strategic level. But when I started telling him what it would take, he backed off and figured he'd never get approval for such a project. That's why you just have to have a really strong leader who gets it."

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