DM Review welcomes Robert Farris as our newest online columnist. Watch for his column the second week of each even month.

This column explores the major challenges companies face and suggests actions to build an effective business intelligence (BI) and data warehouse (DW) capability and its primary drivers.

Shifts Happen

Has your company stopped growing lately? Stopped exploring new markets, customers or channels? Stopped introducing new products or services? Do you no longer encounter new competitors in the market? Is the structure of your organization static? Have business users within your company stopped asking new questions? Has your IT department stopped deploying new or enhanced data collection systems?

I didn't think so.

Changes in your business have a significant impact on the reporting and analysis needs of people in your business and user communities in terms of the metrics they want to see, the data needed to derive these metrics and the technologies needed to deliver the BI solutions.

Siloed Thinking

One common response to the continuous changes is to distribute the development of reporting and analysis solutions to the functional areas of the business and/or across multiple IT groups. This approach is rarely accomplished with a plan in mind; thus, many discover silos all doing similar BI-related work, resulting in unnecessary and sometimes hidden costs related to:

  • Excessive hardware and software due to purchases of redundant software tools, compounded by the lack of purchasing power when buying software in smaller portions;
  • Uneven distribution of organizational BI investments;
  • Time and effort being spent on less valuable tasks instead of analyzing information, spotting trends in the business and recommending decisions;
  • Time and effort spent to keep existing reporting solutions running - instead of developing new BI solutions that help the company "move the needle";
  • BI projects taking longer to deliver, costing more and failing to deliver on expectations; and
  • Decisions based on incomplete and inaccurate information, resulting in missed opportunities for reducing costs or increasing revenues. This is the greatest hidden cost of a siloed, disconnected BI approach.

The most important decisions made by company leaders - the ones that have the biggest impact on the bottom line - are the ones requiring the integration of information from across the enterprise. Unfortunately, this is where the most difficult challenges begin to surface.

Enterprise-Wide Imperative and Challenges

Despite the unique needs of each major functional group within a company, similarities do exist. It's common to find similar questions in different departments, and the answers require similar information. One group may be interested in different slices of the information and levels of detail than another, but it is fairly common to find an overlap of needs. For example, most departments need some combination of the following to support their decision making:

  • Customer and customer activity information,
  • Information about the company's products or services,
  • Information about activities required to produce and sell these products or services,
  • Information about employees and their activities, and
  • Financial information

Looking at BI and DW with an enterprise-wide perspective requires you to tackle many tough and interrelated issues:

  • What are the priorities of the enterprise (actions, data, metrics, BI applications and functions or processes)?
  • How do we embed the idea of "running the business by the numbers" into the fabric of the company through regular business rhythms and individual incentives?
  • What are the right metrics and dimensions, and how are they defined?
  • How do we organize teams of BI professionals to optimize skills, deliver new solutions and support existing solutions?
  • How do we manage project activities to ensure consistent, quality solutions?
  • How do we deliver solutions on time and within budget while meeting scope and functionality expectations?
  • How do we define our overall data and technology architecture to meet the enterprise-wide needs?
  • How do we ensure that information is secure throughout the company?
  • How do we empower end-users to self-serve their analytic needs in a consistent and reliable way?

A decision on the direction for each of these questions impacts the answers to other questions. For example, the technologies you decide to use will impact the skills you need to build, but the converse is also true - the skills of your BI team may impact which tools you choose in the first place. Silver-bullet thoughts such as "if we could just buy a better tool" or "if we could just do a better job at project management" are not really valid in BI problem solving.
Once you determine the direction, you need to have management discipline to stick with the vision while making the appropriate course corrections along the way. Many hard choices must be made, requiring a strong partnership between business and IT people along with strong executive sponsorship.

Enterprise BI and DW is a Journey, not a Project

Once you realize that your business is continuously changing and impacting your reporting and analysis needs, you'll understand the need to "get serious" about BI as a discipline. Shifts in company strategy will occur, but success lies in a company's ability to execute the strategy. An enterprise BI and DW capability is a critical component to ensure quick response to the changing environment.

In order to establish and deliver on the promise of this capability, you'll need to start with a holistic view of where you want to go. There are seven inter-related areas that need to be considered when establishing this future vision, which will be covered in subsequent columns in this series.

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