So you think you're ready to start a data warehouse project ­ but are you? Industry hype has created a situation in which business people expect a data warehouse project to bring at least some results quickly. Four prerequisites to timely completion of a decision support project are business sponsorship, a clear objective, a defined scope and a reduced emphasis on calculating the return on investment. Having these prerequisites in place will save time, money and grief. If you don't have them in place, try to get them in place before you start. You'll be glad you did.

Prerequisities for Successful Projects

Without a doubt, business sponsorship is one of the most critical success factors for any project, particularly for a decision support effort. When a business area is requesting help with its access to information for a particular purpose, a sponsor usually exists. If that sponsor is satisfied that the data warehousing team is committed to meeting the objective, involvement of key business participants is likely to follow.

If you are in the situation where the business sponsor is not on board, key business people need to be educated. The two major objectives of the education process are to provide the business leaders with the needed background so they understand the process and their roles, and to ensure that they are truly committed to the effort. Once the education process is complete, sessions with these people to obtain their (high-level) requirements can be conducted. During these sessions, not only do we gain information on the requirements, but commitment from the business community is solidified again. If business sponsorship cannot be obtained, the chances for success are dismal, and the project should not proceed.

Many successful data warehousing projects begin with a clear objective. An example is to "provide information to analyze sales so that we can capitalize on cross-selling opportunities." The objective should be understood by both the business and technical communities, must contain components for which success metrics can be established, be attainable through the implementation and use of the data warehouse and be relevant to the business goals of the company.

When such an objective exists, business sponsorship may already exist or is easier to obtain. The emphasis on calculating the return on investment (ROI) is often decreased, since the link to the business direction of the company is obvious. In addition, this objective provides the foundation for the third prerequisite of a data warehouse project ­ a defined scope.

The scope definition document is critical to the success of a data warehouse project. Its absence, particularly when combined with the absence of an effective change management process, is responsible for the failure of many projects. Ideally, the scope document should be developed in a few days. By providing the objective, a focal point is immediately established; and the document focuses on refining (not defining) the scope, recording information about it to help communicate what the project is about, how it will be pursued, the implications (e.g., risks), costs, benefits, etc.1

When the objective of the project is not well defined, the effort to create the scope definition document can require weeks, and even months. This effort can entail dozens of interviews, facilitated sessions, extensive research and almost endless discussions with the project sponsors. Often, by the time the scope document is finished, significant time generally reserved for subsequent phases has been spent.

A reduced emphasis on calculating ROI does not mean that the project need not have an acceptable return on investment. When a business sponsor recognizes the business value, however, there is often less emphasis on identifying each savings area and quantifying the savings. The business sponsor recognizes the strategic value of satisfying the objective and (if the cost is reasonable) is often willing to go with a "gut feel."

Depending on the level of commitment to the objective, the scope document may need to contain details concerning both the costs and the savings so that a preliminary or estimated return on investment can be quantified. Once a comfort level is reached with the business sponsor, the need for an ROI will diminish and the company will see the project more as part of an overall strategic move.

These are just a few of the more important prerequisites of successful projects. Note that none of these are technological issues. Rarely does technology depth charge a project. Obviously, the right people, tools, databases, etc., are essential; but they alone will not guarantee success. More often than not, it is the softer, organizational or cultural issues that cause us grief. Success comes only when the business community is involved, committed to the project, expectations are established and then appropriately met. When these prerequisites do not exist, the data warehouse team can often find itself at the starting gate ready to go, but with no authority to do so.

1 A sample scope document can be found at www.IntelSols.com.

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