This is a series of "Problem Solved" columns written by various consultants of Baseline Consulting. Each column will address a real-life project or client challenge and discuss how the author addressed the issue.
It's hard to believe, but data warehousing is more than two decades old. In the technology adoption curve, data warehousing is in "late majority" stage. This may require special measures to keep it from showing its age.
Much of our work on data warehouses reminds me of the show This Old House. The parallels are clear: If you have enough pride of ownership and invest in maintenance, the data warehouse can stay new. Moreover, it can represent a captivating ROI message to its owners. Let's get out the toolbox and see what this takes.
Business users at a large retailing client have gradually seen a slippage in data warehouse support. The business intelligence (BI) environment had delivered on its promise. Sales reports ran every week. Merchandisers were able to analyze sell-through of products and track purchase trends. Forecasting reports were used across organizations. BI had become part of the company's operational foundation.
In fact, the data warehouse ran as smoothly as the company's phone system. People took it for granted. But performance was slowing, the data model didn't align with emerging business objectives and there were some cracks in the data management foundation. As the corporate budget compressed, financial support for the BI environment was relegated to the dreaded category of "support only, no new investment."
The director of information management and I informally interviewed a number of stakeholders. Their comments were consistent: The data warehouse was helping people do their jobs and providing value to customers. These messages weren't making their way to senior management, so we sat down and developed a value awareness strategy. We wanted to cultivate an understanding of how the data warehouse helped the business. We knew that once executives understood the benefits, they would restore funding. We used the following three strategies to communicate the value:
1. Sell using real-life scenarios. With the BI environment, open and consistent communication is critical. Do you have regular user meetings? What about an internal Web page with release updates and data definitions? You can post success stories, share how others are using information and record response times, load complete times and progress updates. It's not only important to tout past successes, but also to give people a vision of how they'll be living with BI moving forward. In order to communicate value, we set up a roundtable of business users from different organizations and invited several executives to attend the session and hear the success stories.
2. Plan for additions. One truism of every good data warehouse is that there will be more data, more users and more queries than you planned. Often processing, users and usable table space double in size in the first 12 months of implementation. I've seen large, scalable platforms exhaust capacity within six months.
Prepare a capacity plan, projecting space consumption and CPU utilization at least six months in advance. This allows you to avoid surprises when the budget cycle starts. These significant expenditures require a lot of effort in a short period of time. By doing a capacity plan and projecting user needs, our retail client was able to avoid the justification effort altogether because their expansion was cemented in the governance committee's plan - and in their budget.
3. Determine payback proactively. It's imperative not only to understand the cost of the DW platform and its support but to quantify the financial worth of every application in the BI portfolio. This may mean going back and netting out the cost benefit of existing applications. It definitely means building a structured business case for every new application in the pipeline.
As your data warehouse starts to show its age, routine maintenance may not be enough. As with any renovation, you want to make it as painless as possible.
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