During a recent briefing on operational intelligence given by a large technology company, the presenter referenced the following quote taken from the Harvard Business Review. "We judge leaders by how well they make big strategic decisions. But corporate success also depends on how well rank-and-file employees make thousands of small decisions. Do I give this client a special price? How do I handle this customer's complaint? Should I offer a seat upgrade to this passenger? By themselves, such daily calls - increasingly made with the help of technology - have little impact on business performance. Taken together, they influence everything from profitability to reputation."1

This made me sit up and take notice. I've used this quote in my customer relationship management (CRM) classes and presentations. I use it to reinforce the need to examine organization, culture and business process in all CRM technology implementations. I use it to highlight the need to ensure that front-line personnel have the training and knowledge to support making these types of daily customer-oriented decisions, that they are empowered to do so, and that front-line business processes do not preclude their ability to act effectively.

Focusing on the nontechnical issues makes perfect sense from the CRM perspective because much of CRM is oriented to personal relationships and is carried out on the front line. But aside from ensuring governance and business sponsorship, do these nontechnical issues apply to business intelligence (BI)? Consider the evolving direction of the industry, and the answer is yes. BI is no longer strictly for supporting big strategic decisions. Judy Davis, Claudia Imhoff and Colin White all define operational intelligence as the set of services, applications and technologies for monitoring, reporting on, analyzing and managing a business performance of an organization's daily operations. Last month's column positioned a similar definition - combining detailed integrated data with historical analysis results for on-the-spot front-line decision-making. This is BI in the operational world, supporting the masses in everyday situations.

Logic dictates that concepts required to make the operational aspects of CRM successful will also be required for BI in that same environment. Here's where it gets interesting. When most BI practitioners discuss operational BI, they focus on the architecture and technology required to support real-time BI information in the operational world. However, as any battle-scarred CRM veteran will tell you, that's the easy part. It's the other bits that get you. After all, you can throw money at technology, but money can't fix cultural or organizational problems. What's more, the CRM implementers have an advantage over BI teams. CRM applications dictate at the very least a blended IT and business team that has strong front-line business representation. Who would think of implementing a call center application without the call center, campaign management without marketing or sales force automation without sales? The right people are already at the table from the start to ensure that broken call center processes are not simply automated, that sales personnel are compensated for entering prospect visit details into the system (or docked when they don't) and that marketing managers have the training and skills to monitor campaigns and perform the appropriate midcampaign tweaks when results are not meeting expectations.

The typical BI team, on the other hand, consists of program and project managers, business analysts, data modelers, ETL coders and BI tool experts. Lucky teams have full-time subject matter experts but many have access to business representatives for only limited periods. These teams have traditionally not focused on operational processes or systems except to get the data from them. In many instances, the team does not have the skills or the organizational clout to change business processes, training or compensation programs.

If operational intelligence is to be achieved, the BI team composition must change. It is imperative that the group delivering BI to the front lines have the reach required to focus on the cultural and organizational issues that have been the traditional purview of operational initiatives such as CRM. Teams must have the skills needed to dissect business processes and modify or mend them if required. They must be able to review job descriptions and compensation plans to ensure that front-line staff are empowered to act on the new intelligence and that current goals do not conflict with new objectives. And they must have the authority to request (and receive) cooperation across business lines and departments.

BI has evolved to supporting daily operational decisions. With this reality comes the need to expand the reach of the BI team. Organizations must look at blending the traditional BI development resources with resources from the front-line business units to form a cohesive team that can cover the technical as well as the cultural activities needed to make operational BI a success.


  1. Frank Rohde. "Little Decisions Add Up." Harvard Business Review, June 2005.

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