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False Gods

  • October 01 2002, 1:00am EDT

In the golden age of sailing ships, Sweden, one of the dominant sea powers, sought to build the definitive sea-going warship. The Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, sought to bring forth a ship that would dominate the seas. This capability would tip the scales of dominance in Northern Europe, further strengthen the trading area of the Swedish commercial interests and diminish the influence of Poland and other rivals.

To achieve these lofty goals, the experienced engineers and designers of the time simply continued down the main axis of development of warship power and influence: size. They brought forth one of the largest warships the world had ever seen, the Vasa. It carried a complement of 64 cannons in two decks and more than 200 men. It towered above the harbor and boasted beautiful carvings, a spacious deck and officers' quarters. Its size and implicit powers were celebrated throughout the land. The implications of its capabilities caused much consternation among Sweden's rivals and much speculation among the various trading cartels and commercial interests of the time.

Sunday, August 10, 1628, the day of the Vasa's launch, dawned bright. The royal house, tens of thousands of citizens of the realm, along with countless spies, dignitaries, diplomats and courtiers lined the harbor as the Vasa pulled away from the dock, her gun ports open to enable the celebratory cannon salutes. A stiff breeze blew in, nothing extraordinary, but enough to heel the Vasa over mildly to port. The waters of the harbor poured into the open ports of the lower gun deck, and the Vasa sank within minutes, her maiden and last voyage measuring less than the length of the harbor.

The Vasa is but one example of well-meaning, well-qualified teams suffering disastrous consequences due to fealty to false gods. Just as the engineers of the Vasa thought that size would conquer all, I see many business intelligence (BI) teams suffer due to the pursuit of the following false gods of BI.

Sales Reps – Purchasing and product review teams consistently fall under the influence of practiced, smooth, sales professionals. The BI teams forget that they will never see the sales reps again in their lives. Just as when you buy a car, the BI teams will spend the rest of their time with the service and support organizations.

Technology – As technologists, BI teams concentrate on what they know the best and are most comfortable with: technology. They give short shrift to the factors that drive most failures (i.e., expectation management, change management, culture, politics, marketing, communications, etc.). It's hard to find projects that failed due to the "hard" issues such as technology. In fact, I don't know of a single one. It's easy to find projects that failed due to the "soft" issues. How much energy are you investing in technology versus the soft issues?

Fixed dates – IT managers love to establish fixed delivery dates. Fixed dates demonstrate to the business that the BI team can deliver value and meet a fixed time target. They demonstrate the commitment of the team to work long hours and willingness to sacrifice families, relationships, health, interests, etc. to the cause. They are also a colossal waste of resources, energy and political capital. There are only three variables in data warehousing (quality being a prerequisite): scope, resources and time. Resources will be relatively fixed. By fixing time, scope will invariably shrink and be compromised to meet the arbitrarily fixed date target. Compromised scopes often fail to meet the expectations of the business. Failing to meet the expectations of the business leads to negative consequences for the BI team.

Price – As BI becomes more and more of a commodity, many teams are basing purchase decisions solely on price. I've had countless meetings with senior executives to discuss jump-starting their next attempts at BI success. Not one of them has said that their project failed and they all lost their jobs, but it was okay because they got a great deal. No one remembers price in the context of failure.

Size – Just as the Vasa taught us, size is not the answer. Having a multiterabyte data warehouse (DW) may enhance your resume, but it does not guarantee value to the business. The right 100 megabytes of data are more important than four terabytes of extraneous, tangential, marginal data. Understand the processes of the business to ensure you are delivering the most valuable, relevant information.

Elegance – Reality is often, if not always, ugly from the perspective of technological elegance. Pursuing technologically pure elegant solutions is not a pragmatic route to providing BI value to the business. You face a fundamental fork in the road: follow a puritanical path that sacrifices careers, teams and projects on the altar of theoretical elegance or follow a path of pragmatic reality that enables you to achieve the maximum amount of success possible in your political, cultural and implementation reality.

The Vasa represented a good portion of the entire wealth of Sweden. It was a fatal investment in conventional thinking and a dead-end path in nautical design. It was a sacrifice to a false god. Deny the false gods of BI and thereby avoid the fate of the Vasa, its crew, its designers and its kingdom.

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