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How to Satisfy Business Users Every Time (Business User Myths), Part 2

  • December 04 2003, 1:00am EST

Forming a good working relationship between the IT department and the business users is important, but can be harder than it looks. In this series of articles we explore some of the myths that plague us when it comes to satisfying business users. (See Myths 1 and 2 at NavID=55&EdID=7448.) In this article we discuss three more myths:

  • Myth 3: Excel spreadsheets are the work of the devil.
  • Myth 4: Access databases are the work of the devil.
  • Myth 5: Dashboards will save executives time.

Myth 3: Excel spreadsheets are the work of the devil.

The most widely used BI tool today is the spreadsheet. If you are a BI vendor or a data warehouse manager, you need harbor no illusions that your main competition is the spreadsheet. Almost everyone in the corporate world gets Microsoft Office with Excel on every PC or notebook they are issued. Many track expenses, devise their budgets and forecasts, and create reports using Excel. Some even use pivot tables and create macros that rival your IT department’s programming prowess.

What’s the problem? Why do some IT people feel Excel is the work of the devil? Simple. The proliferation of custom-built reports with data pulled from who-knows-where using self-serving metrics brings into question the value of the information available. Too often, a spreadsheet is used to "spin" the numbers to be the most favorable to certain departments. Then you end up with a group of business people debating the numbers they have in their reports or spreadsheets rather than discussing what actions they should take to improve their business.

The problem is not the spreadsheet, but rather the fact that the data pulled into it may come from various "unofficial" databases (i.e., not your data warehouse or data mart) and the data may be transformed without the visibility that is now so critical in a corporation. This situation is a symptom of a problem, not the actual problem itself. Business users pull data in and transform it because it is either not available to them or they don’t understand that it is available. No one is going to go through the hassle of gathering and transforming data if they know it is already in your data warehouse, easily accessible from Excel. Business users aren’t going to create extra work for themselves.

What Should IT Do?

  1. First, if the business user wants to use Excel, why argue? You aren’t going to win. Your BI tool, such as Business Objects/Crystal, Actuate and Hyperion/Brio already connects to Excel. Some even connect in a bidirectional manner, allowing your business user to get spreadsheets refreshed with new data as it becomes available and share spreadsheet results with others. If not, consider how you can set up a data distribution capability from your BI tool and data warehouse to your user’s Excel spreadsheet.
  2. Second, use this as an opportunity to examine what data your users are using in their spreadsheets and determine how to get it into your data warehouse or data mart. This is an excellent opportunity to work with the business, improve its productivity and increase the value of your efforts.

Myth 4: Access databases are the work of the devil.

They are, this is not a myth! Sure, many people, both in and outside of IT, have created useful applications using Access. And yes, Access can be used as a query tool to data sources without paying license fees to BI vendors. But, when I examine a business department and start uncovering hundreds of Access databases feeding Excel spreadsheets, danger signals go off. In this scenario, Access is being used as a poor man’s ETL tool (albeit without any documentation or discipline.) At this point, there usually is a spat of finger pointing between the IT and business groups. The IT group claims that the business group is out of control, and the business group says they wouldn’t have done it if the IT group was responsive.

What should you do if you are an IT person in this situation? Learn from it, listen to the business users and try to see how you can be more responsive to their needs. Figure out which Access databases support repetitive reporting and determine if your existing environment could provide this data. If not, what would you need to do to provide it? The answer should not be that the business user needs to learn a new BI tool. The data should be made available from their Excel spreadsheet. You have then added value by providing a single version of the truth (through your data warehouse or data mart) but via the business user’s BI tool of choice. You have also shifted the business users from developing IT shadow systems (gathering and transforming data) to analyzing the data and hopefully being able to react to it.

Myth 5: Dashboards will save executives time.

Do you think your CEO or SVP of marketing is spending a lot of time developing performance reports on your company? Think again. Your executives have their very own effective BI tools – their staffs! If they want to know something that is not on a report in front of them, they can ask a member of their staff to find it out. That may be great for the CEO, but not so great for the staff members scrambling for data.

Perhaps they could use a dashboard. If you create one, they will come? In my discussions with managers in charge of data warehousing or business intelligence efforts, I have often heard that they were rolling out their first dashboard projects with hundreds or thousands of licenses. It’s an impressive commitment, especially in this economy. My followup is to ask what business initiative and corporate performance measures they are implementing. I was surprised the first few times when I got blank stares. Its like they are telling me "we don’t need no stinkin’ initiative, the product is cool! If we build it, they will come." Don’t we in IT ever learn?

The dashboard is only as good as the depth, breadth and quality of the data behind it. The dashboard is only useful if it presents the data to the business user in the context of agreed-upon business metrics and performance measures. Otherwise it is just another fancy report or graph that will send the executive staff scrambling for data. IT needs to gather solid business requirements on performance measures, make sure the data is there and ultimately sell the dashboard to management. Finally, IT needs to be responsive to the business and adjust the dashboards as the business changes and becomes more sophisticated about performance measures.

Many companies have successfully built and deployed dashboards that provide great business ROI. A dashboard can be a great tool, but only if it’s built on a proper foundation.

Next time we’ll explore a few more myths:

Myth 6: Standardizing on a BI tool will solve the problem.
Myth 7: Our data warehouse has all the data a business user could ever want.
Myth 8: We need real-time analytics.

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