What we've got here is failure to communicate.
         - Captain in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke

What is the most likely cause of failed business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing (DW) projects? Not technology shortcomings, as one might expect. Unfortunately, the more common reason they fail is that they don't meet business expectations.

Although this failure can be subtle, the effects are still devastating. Often the IT group doesn't realize that the BI/DW initiative has not lived up to the business group's expectations. Or, the project simply cost too much in time, resources and budget. Even if there is no outward hostility from the business users, they will show their dissatisfaction by building their own data shadow systems to get the business value they thought they were going to get from your BI solution. (See my May 2006 DM Review column for more on data shadow systems.)

The first reaction may be to blame the BI/DW group for not involving the business users in the project. But in reality, business users are routinely involved in the requirements-gathering activities, BI tool selection, report specifications, creation and business transformations definition. Many IT groups use a governance process that involves business management in a steering committee and business users in BI working groups. If IT groups are involving the business, why are expectations not being met?

There are two key ingredients to setting and meeting business expectations (assuming the IT group can deliver the technology solution): communication and marketing.

Open Communication Lines

Everybody's talking at me, I don't hear a word they're saying.
         - "Everybody's Talkin'" by Fred Neil, sung by Harry Nilsson

For communication to be effective, it must be with the right people and involve two-way discussions. The most common communication shortcomings in BI/DW projects are:

  • Overreliance on business power users. Power users are the businesspeople most involved in using data and technology for reporting and analysis. It is natural that they are the business users with whom IT most closely works. However, they may provide a barrier to two-way feedback. Plus, they are also the people who develop the data shadow systems that are competing with the BI solution.
  • Wrong (and unmotivated) people. The IT governance committees may have neither the right people to make or influence decisions on the steering committee nor the right people to get the tasks done in the working committee. The members of these committees need to feel they are involved and encouraged to provide honest feedback. Too often, these committees become more about process than communication.
  • A bogged-down feedback loop. The formal processes created for providing BI feedback and enhancement requests may have become so bureaucratic or time-consuming that business users give up in frustration. If all the work goes into the request process rather than fulfilling the request, the business users will seek answers elsewhere, such as in data shadow systems or listening to software vendors pitch the latest prebuilt BI solution to replace the current BI efforts.

The best communication is open and frank. When a project is taking longer than expected, discuss this fact and the reasons behind it with the business users. Projects can be slowed down when the data integration effort is snagged by the state of the data or when the reports the business users initially specified are a lot more involved than anticipated. These are not uncommon occurrences, but they need to be openly discussed and managed.
The business and IT groups should share the responsibility for any tradeoffs or project extensions. In addition, slow creep of little snags must also be communicated and managed. Many projects keep moving forward with the DW group doing a great job of handling these small snags, only to be hit with a death by a thousand needles. The business will not know your truly Herculean efforts unless they are kept informed. If they find out afterward, when you have missed your deadlines and gone over budget, it only sounds like excuses.

Meeting Expectations, Avoiding Surprises

Don't provide the opportunity for business users to think your BI/DW project hasn't met expectations, or worse, is a failure. Make effective use of two-way communications to ensure you meet expectations and avoid unwelcome surprises. In my next column I will discuss the internal marketing efforts you should use to increase the use of your BI solution by the business community and their satisfaction with the BI solution. 

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