Organizations beginning business intelligence (BI) initiatives often turn to external BI consultants for assistance. It is common for these organizations to include among their objectives self-sufficiency with BI. In other words, they are willing to pay for expert external assistance to get started, but they want - at some point in the future - to be able to design, build, operate and use BI applications on their own, without external assistance. This objective typically is expressed to the external consultant as a request for knowledge transfer to be included in the consulting engagement. My BI consulting firm has helped numerous clients on their journey toward BI self-sufficiency. These clients have achieved varying levels of success, largely due to key decisions they made along the way. This article discusses the elements of BI knowledge transfer that are critical to achieving self-sufficiency.

Knowledge Transfer to Whom?

It would seem obvious that, in order to become self-sufficient in BI, an organization must have a BI team capable of performing those tasks. This internal BI team is the intended recipient of the requested knowledge transfer. The money the organization is spending with the external BI consultant is in part an investment in developing its internal BI team. Sometimes clients forget that there must be internal people - a BI team - to whom they must transfer the knowledge. If an organization uses external assistance primarily because it doesn’t have the staff to do the work, then it probably doesn’t have the staff to receive the BI knowledge transfer from the external consultant.

Talent Matters

The success of knowledge transfer depends a great deal upon the staff the client has identified to become its internal BI experts. The consultant staff transfers its knowledge to these people. Many organizations undermine their own self-sufficiency efforts by underinvesting in their BI team. Some common mistakes are:

  • Not recognizing the breadth and level of skill that are required. Because the objective of BI is to provide information that enables better business decision-making, the people building BI solutions must be closer to the business than builders of transaction-processing systems. All but the most technical roles on the BI team require a solid understanding of the organization’s business.
  • BI is a specialized branch of IT. BI team members must have general IT skills, but that’s not enough. Many aspects of BI design and development differ significantly from the methods used to develop transaction-processing systems. These specialized aspects of BI constitute much of the knowledge transfer the client needs transferred to its staff. The required BI expertise can be gained through education, training and knowledge transfer. However, business understanding and fundamental IT skills are prerequisites.
  • Not paying market compensation. The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) publishes an annual survey of BI salaries, roles and responsibilities that can be useful in calibrating the compensation of BI team members. Although both data warehousing and BI are mature disciplines, there is a shortage of top-notch experienced BI professionals relative to the demand for such people. Organizations should expect to get the level of BI talent for which they are willing to pay.
  • Filling the team with low performers. Those clients least successful in achieving BI self-sufficiency have been those that staffed their BI teams with people who performed poorly in other positions. Talent matters: the best-performing BI teams have the cream of the crop, not the bottom of the barrel.
  • Team members must want to learn. The decision to invest in knowledge transfer for BI self-sufficiency is one made by the client organization’s management. Management also decides which employees will be on its BI team. Because it made these decisions, management is committed to having BI knowledge transferred to the BI team members. The team members themselves also must want to gain BI knowledge, and that is not always the case for all team members. One of management’s responsibilities is to generate enthusiasm for the BI initiative and the use of expert external assistance so that the team members are engaged in the knowledge transfer process. There is no substitute for eager and willing recipients.

It Takes Time

The majority of knowledge transfer takes place during the project as the work is being done. In the simplest case, the consultants explain what they are doing, while they are doing it. Not surprisingly, explaining while doing (and the learning dialog that accompanies it) takes more time than simply doing. A very rough rule of thumb is that knowledge transfer adds 25 to 50 percent to the elapsed time of a BI project. This additional elapsed time, and the cost associated with it, is the organization’s investment in achieving BI self-sufficiency. The business situation sometimes forces a BI project to have an aggressive schedule or a fixed completion deadline. Because knowledge transfer takes extra time, such projects should not also be burdened with knowledge transfer. Instead, they should be “just do it” projects.

Once is Not Enough

Attaining BI self-sufficiency is a journey. Each project in the organization’s BI program is one step on that journey. The number of steps required to reach BI self-sufficiency depends on many factors: the amount of BI expertise and experience the organization has at the start, the emphasis placed on knowledge transfer, the complexity of the IT environment and so on. Organizations new to BI sometimes expect to be self-sufficient by their second project. That is, the consultant helps them with their first BI project, and then they do the second and subsequent projects by themselves. Such expectations are seldom realistic. If knowledge transfer is an explicit objective of each BI project, a reasonable expectation is that, by the end of the first project, the client organization will be partially self-sufficient in some aspects of BI. By the end of the second project, the organization will be fully proficient in some areas and partially proficient in others. By the end of the third project, the organization might be completely self-sufficient.

Explicit Expectations and Plans

If knowledge transfer and progress toward BI self-sufficiency are project objectives, then that aspect of the project should be planned and managed as thoroughly as its other business and technical aspects. The example in Figure 1 illustrates this concept.

The Role of BI Education and Training

Knowledge transfer from an external consultant is just one element of the journey toward BI self-sufficiency. Education in BI and data warehousing techniques and methods is necessary to give the internal BI team a foundation to leverage the knowledge transferred from the consultant. Many BI consulting firms offer BI education. The instructor might be one of the consultants working on the organization’s BI project. However, education differs from consulting-based knowledge transfer in that knowledge transfer occurs as part of doing the work on the project. Training is an equally important element and fulfills a different need than knowledge transfer. For example, if an internal BI team member needs to learn how to build multidimensional cubes using an online analytical processing (OLAP) tool, he or she should be sent to training offered by the OLAP tool software vendor. Questions that may be better answered by an external BI consultant include:

  • What types of analysis are best supported by a multidimensional cube (versus a dashboard or some other form of information delivery)?
  • What architecture, design and development techniques make the cube more elegant, easier to understand and maintain by the BI team or more scalable?
  • Why did the consultant do it that way? The journey to BI self-sufficiency includes education, training and knowledge transfer, especially if the client organization is starting from zero with BI.

An Oft-Forgotten Element: Documentation Most people think of knowledge transfer as “you watch over my shoulder as I do it” (the consultant does the work, with the internal BI team member observing and asking questions), followed by “you try it while I watch over your shoulder” (the internal BI team member does the work, observed by the consultant). While these are valid knowledge transfer methods, they are not the only mechanisms by which knowledge can flow from the consultant to the internal BI team. Documentation is a component of the systems development lifecycle that many people consider a chore. However, it can be a very effective element of knowledge transfer because it remains after the consultant leaves. Not all documentation is equally useful for knowledge transfer. What the application does can be reverse-engineered from the code if necessary. More useful is why the application was built (i.e., what business objectives it supports and/or what business problems it was meant to solve) and how the conceptual, logical and physical design accomplishes it. Key “why” and “how” documents for knowledge transfer include business requirements, business drivers, strategic objectives, business questions, fact/qualifier matrix and definition of terms. You’ll also need traceability from delivered information back through the design to business requirements, in the form of conceptual design, conceptual data architecture, process flow diagrams and transformation business rules.

Walk Through It

BI projects that explicitly include knowledge transfer from the consultant to the client organization often entail the consultant doing most of the project work. An effective knowledge transfer technique can be for the consultant to walk through its work products with the internal BI team, including the documentation discussed previously, code written by the consultant and so on. In addition to in-progress walkthroughs, after the new BI application has gone into production, an end-of-project walkthrough can serve as a review of the knowledge transferred by the consultant during the course of the project. It can also provide a final opportunity for internal BI team members to ask questions. The end-of-project walkthrough also provides an opportunity to assess how well the organization has achieved its knowledge transfer and BI self-sufficiency objectives in that project.

Consultant Staff - Doers and Teachers

The elements of successful knowledge transfer discussed so far predominantly have been things for the client organization to do. The consultant also plays a primary role in the client’s journey toward BI self-sufficiency. The consultant’s key contribution lies in assigning staff to the project who are expert BI doers and adept and patient teachers/explainers of BI. Introverted, uncommunicative technical geniuses can make great contributions to a BI project, but the consultants most effective at transferring knowledge and helping client organizations become self-sufficient with BI have deep technical expertise, communicate well, are patient with those less skilled than they are and derive great satisfaction from mentoring and teaching.

Putting It All Together

Becoming self-sufficient with BI is an objective of many organizations, both for those experienced in BI and those new to it. Expert assistance from an external consultant to do early BI projects and transfer knowledge to an internal BI team is a proven approach to achieving self-sufficiency. Successful knowledge transfer as a means to BI self-sufficiency depends on having the right internal BI team, motivating the team to desire BI knowledge, allowing the time necessary for knowledge transfer to occur, explicitly planning for knowledge transfer, supplementing it with education, training and documentation, and using consultants who are both good doers and effective explainers of BI.

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