In a management meeting the other day, our CFO made an interesting observation. It was one of those things you hear people say in the flow of a meeting that is both searingly insightful and overwhelmingly straightforward, leading to the classic "well, why didn't I say that" moment. His simple observation, which quickly fell by the wayside of the overall conversation, resonated on two distinctly different but parallel planes. "You need to know what you're going to do with numbers before you pay to get them," he said.

Sounds simple doesn't it? The concept of having a defined business purpose for what you are going to build has been preached for so long that many of us who carry that message are getting hoarse. The mantra remains: build specific, measurable, politically meaningful solutions to life-threatening business pain. If you do, you will certainly know what you are going to do with the numbers that result from that effort.

It is sad but true that many teams building business intelligence (BI) solutions today are still operating on some variation of the "build it and they will come" methodology. I admit, it is easy to be convinced that there must be a valid business use for the 95+ percent of the information that lies trapped in information silos around your business. It is easy to get caught up in the revolutionary fervor and endorse the idea that simply by liberating it, the power and glory of easily accessible integrated information will flow forth, the masses will rally to your cause and you will all triumph over the forces of information denial. Unfortunately, this model more often leads to an ignominious Bay of Pigs style outcome rather than the mass triumph of the American Revolution.

As insightful as his comment was regarding defined purpose for effort expended, I found his allusion to "paying for the numbers" very thought-provoking. How many of us, as BI professionals, really think about the concept of paying for the numbers we provide with a BI system? How valuable are they? How would you or could you attach a price or value to those numbers? How about to their availability, their timeliness or global reach?

How many of you work for businesses that attach a value to information before or after it is made available? I've heard it said that the market capitalization of a company minus its assets is the value of its information, but that is a quote used by BI industry pundits and thought-leaders (I've used that quote more than once while at the podium). I have yet to hear that quote on CNN's Moneyline or any other similar mainstream business TV or radio show, much less in mainstream business publications as a core, accepted value.

With a few notable exceptions, I don't see the concept of the value of information accepted, widely discussed or even on the radar of the scores of companies that I visit around the globe. By this, I mean in a material way as part the mechanics of a global strategy for growth, as part of an internal balance sheet or as part of a management team's bonus plan. Lip service is widespread, but concrete, measurable plans and strategies are rare. We're still working the audience out here in BI-land, and the leadership just doesn't "get it." That's not to say we're not making progress, but we're far from seeing headlines in the Wall Street Journal touting the value of an acquisition target's BI assets: seamless access to integrated, near real-time information from all significant components of the business.

It's up to all of the people in the trenches to continue to demand hard accounting, tough analysis and rock-solid business justification and delineation of the dollar cost of obtaining the numbers we provide. Although this may seem counterproductive to an industry that sometimes struggles to provide statistically valid return on investment (ROI) examples for its systems, it is imperative for establishing real credibility. Only by being tempered in the fire of real business case justification can your team and the BI industry move from a sometimes nebulous "you gotta believe" positioning to one of accepted value.

How can you do this in your own projects?

  • By insisting on only building measurable solutions to specific business pain.
  • By insisting on a tough, economically sound ROI analysis before you begin.
  • By providing believable examples of return on the investment in BI systems and capabilities.

Only by contemplating the implications of "knowing what you are going to do with the numbers before you pay for them" and executing on those implications can you bring forth solid, rewarding and politically sustainable BI systems.

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