You take the time to plan for your retirement and for putting your kids through college. You check and double-check to make sure you have everything you'll need prior to leaving for a long vacation.

So why wouldn't you take the time to make sure your business intelligence (BI) project is on track?

These days, it may seem like a luxury to take even a few days for an assessment prior to a business intelligence project, but it could mean the difference between success and failure for your BI initiative.

What is a BI Assessment?

A business intelligence assessment is a low-cost, actionable examination of the three areas critical to the implementation of any BI initiative:

Business Needs Analysis: Analyze what underlying strategic and tactical business goals and objectives are driving the development of the business intelligence solution, including whether executive sponsorship and funding are available.

Organizational Analysis: Analyze the existing business and technical organizational structures including the level of IT/business partnering in place, the organization's culture and leadership style, its understanding of business intelligence concepts, whether roles and responsibilities have been established, and whether people with the appropriate amount of time and skills are in place.

Technical/Methodology Analysis: Analyze whether the appropriate technical infrastructure and development methodologies are in place including all related hardware and software, the quality and quantity of the source data, and the methodology and change control process.

The assessment forces your company to look at its strengths and weaknesses across these three areas and makes recommendations for how to fix potential problem areas. It's designed to give you a sort of "state of the union" and can save your company time and money before rushing headlong into these usually expensive and often highly visible projects.

A well-conducted assessment will give your company a solid road map for moving forward with a BI initiative. It tells you where you are today, and based on your organization and technology, where you could be in X amount of time.

Sounds simple, right? So why isn't everyone doing them?

Good question. More often than not, BI projects that fail are the result of poor planning. Some well- intentioned executive level manager type attends a software seminar or reads an article on a plane and decides he can't live one more day without implementing a business intelligence solution.

The project gets green-lighted and funded without any consideration of the actual business needs, the people involved or the ultimate ROI that may be realized.

Think about it. Even the name itself – business intelligence – tells you that at least 50 percent of the project should involve input from the business side of your company. Taking a step back to examine your business, its organizational readiness and technical infrastructure is a great way to make sure that your BI project is successful.

When to Conduct a BI Assessment

The best time to conduct an assessment is before you launch a costly and highly visible business intelligence project. Again, taking stock of your company's current situation to establish if you even need a BI solution is key.

But it's never too late. For example, if you've already implemented a data warehouse, an assessment is a great way to determine its ROI and discover potential expansion areas – how are people currently using the data warehouse and are there other business opportunities that could be exploited?

BI assessments are also a great way to get a failed or floundering project back on track. Too often, these types of projects fail and then the original concepts and benefits are thrown out, like the baby with the bath water.

Justifying a BI Assessment: The Long and Short of It

Hopefully, by now you're saying, "I'm intrigued. But how do I justify doing an assessment?"

There are both long- and short-term benefits to be gained from conducting a BI assessment. First, it's a great way to get a quick and low-cost validation of your BI project's proposed direction. A detailed assessment can help you determine if the business and technical assumptions are accurate and if the project team has overlooked any critical factors.

Here's another benefit: the results of the assessment can be quickly acted upon. If an assessment is done correctly, it can help you identify weaknesses and roadblocks to success, which can help in developing contingency plans.

Plus, simply conducting the assessment will build awareness and support for your BI initiative. If you are asking the right questions and involving the right people before the project is launched, they are more likely to understand your goals and assist in meeting them. Simply getting and keeping the key decision-makers informed can make a huge difference as your project proceeds.

As for the more long-term benefits, a BI assessment improves the chances of having positive project ROI because it helps to identify business opportunities and goals before the project is launched. Done correctly, the BI assessment establishes a cohesive, evolutionary vision for current and future development.

Perhaps some of the greatest benefits come from the discoveries that a company makes about itself. For example, one company discovered that their marketing, sales and finance people all used the same basic metrics to run their portions of the business. (They used different names, but it was essentially the same data.) The assessment helped them realize that these groups really needed to be collaborating more and that a data warehouse could help them communicate more effectively.

Getting from Here to There: The Assessment Process

Doing an assessment – and more importantly doing it well – involves the right people asking the right questions and then processing that information into an actionable plan for your company. Here's a very high-level series of steps that all assessments should include:

  • Establish scope/kickoff.
  • Meet with business and IT subject-matter experts to gather information.
  • Strategic and tactical business analysis (including a SWOT analysis).
  • Organizational analysis.
  • Process and methodology analysis.
  • Reporting and tools analysis.
  • Architecture and data analysis.
  • Gap analysis (optional).
  • Document what was learned.
  • Develop recommendations, action plans and estimated costs.
  • Present findings and recommendations to stakeholders.

Again, the success of any business intelligence project comes down to simply asking the right questions. It's not about the technology – any of the leading BI software vendors can provide your company with a solid solution. But before you spend one dime on software, you need to establish the business case for your BI initiative and determine where the information source, who will be using it and the expected benefits.

Asking the Right Questions

As mentioned earlier, your assessment will be comprised of three separate but equally important aspects of your company: a business needs analysis, an organizational analysis and a technical/methodology analysis.

For the business analysis, you'll want to start out at a very high level within the organization:

  • What are your company's objectives?
  • What are the key success factors, and how well are they being met today?
  • How often do you measure those success factors?
  • Does a lack of information prevent you from meeting objectives?
  • What types of routine analysis do you do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis?
  • What data do you use?
  • If you had more information, what would you do with it?

Here are some sample questions to consider during the organizational analysis:

  • Is there a nice alignment between the IT people and the business? Do they work well together?
  • Does your company have an analytical culture – including people who are able to do something with the data they're given?
  • Is there a methodology in place for projects such as this?
  • Is there a change management process in place?

Lastly, the questions below are a great starting point for your technology/methodology analysis:

  • Do you have knowledgeable IT people and enough IT people to work on this?
  • Do you have appropriate hardware and software in place?
  • Do you have the tools in place to move large amounts of data?
  • Do you have funding to improve your infrastructure?

Remember that the majority of the assessment involves gathering business requirements – you can build the most worthless BI solution in the world with the greatest technology if you haven't paid enough attention to the business needs and benefits.

Outsourcing Versus In-House Assessments

Hiring an outside firm to do your BI assessment has its advantages. It's more likely that an outside firm will deliver an objective and unbiased view of your company – and it's always helpful to get a fresh perspective on your business, organization and technology. Plus, if your company doesn't have the level of BI expertise needed to launch the initiative, leveraging an outside vendor's expertise is a great way to get your staff up to speed in new concepts. Lastly, the assessment is less likely to be put on hold due to changes in priority or resource reallocation.

However, if you have the resources available within your company, conducting an assessment internally can be cost-effective and convenient. Just remember that if your company commits to conducting the assessment, the people you've selected to accomplish it need to have solid communication and analytical skills and the ability to remain neutral while gathering the necessary information.

You wouldn't embark on a cross-country road trip without consulting a map, would you? The assessment serves as your road map to a successful BI initiative. A typical BI assessment will take four to six weeks depending on its scope, objectives, your company's current technical architecture, the complexity of the assessment and the skills of the assessment team.

In just four to six weeks, your company could be on its way to implementing the business intelligence solution it really needs. It's a great investment, time well spent and can positively impact the success of your business intelligence initiative.

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