Requirements gathering, the process of discovering and documenting the business need for a business intelligence (BI) system, is viewed by many IT teams as a black art, full of mysterious practices known only to a few high- ranking members of the BI guild. As a well-known champion of building BI systems exclusively to address specific, politically sustainable, life- threatening business pain, I probably receive more questions about how to search out, identify and properly prioritize business need than any other topic.

Last week I was asked to provide advice to a site that had just spent several million dollars on a very large BI system that had been mandated from on high that, unfortunately, no one was using. The team involved feared for their lives, considering it only a matter of time before the bean counters stumbled across the rather astounding ratio of a handful of users and a cost with many, many zeros.

Theirs was a classic case of a CEO attempting to achieve business culture change via an application of a technological blunt object. While their BI system had enjoyed "number one priority" support from the top of the organization, it wasn't even on the priority radar screen of the management ranks or the users. Regardless of this fact, the IT team had marched ahead, taking comfort in the fact that since they had CEO support, they were home free.

Political Reality

Unfortunately, dealing with the business and political aspects of real implementations is as critical to success as being focused on the data, technological and vendor/product aspects of system design. In the land of political reality, to be successful at requirements gathering and identifying politically meaningful and sustainable pain, you must identify a clear and distinct vein of pain that runs from the very top of the organization, through the management ranks and out to the ranks of users.

Each of these three players, CEO, managers and users, has a trump card over the hand of fate dealt to the BI team. The CEO gives the team the royal scepter, the club of mandate and power, that when used with discretion opens all doors and engenders cooperation between the various warring tribes of the organization. The managers control the valve of resources, with which they can shower the team with the people, technologies and systems required to bring forth the harvest of business intelligence. Lastly, the users are the arbiters of relevance, and thereby success. If the system does not relieve a specific, life-threatening pain, the users simply won't use it. If the system does not deliver relief that easily outweighs the grief of changing their business processes to take advantage of it, the users simply won't use it. If the system is viewed as yet another technological folly or mandate du jour from above, the users simply won't use it.

Solid Support Crucial

As you can see, without all three groups solidly lined up behind it, any initiative, regardless of the level of support of any one or two groups, is doomed to fail. If you only have the support of the CEO, you have a project that has budget and unwavering support from the top, but no resources and no utilization. If you have a project supported only by the managers, then you'll have no mandate, no budget, plenty of resources and no utilization. If you have a project championed solely by the users, you'll have no budget, no mandate, no resources and still no utilization, because nothing will ever get built.

Any one of the three key groups can, and will, send a project down in flames. I have seen projects summarily executed by senior management when they discovered that something was afoot that they did not personally bless. I have seen projects where managers gradually bled away the resources until the project they felt was a waste of time and money endured a long, painful death. I have seen beautiful systems, powerful manifestations of technological glory, sit, atrophy and finally wither away. Because they did nothing to positively change the lives of users, the users simply didn't use them.

At the risk of being kicked out of the guild, I'll share the number one secret to success in requirements gathering. In order to build a successful, politically sustainable BI system, you must find a vein of pain in your organization that runs through all three groups: CEO, managers and users. Find that vein of pain, build a system to address that specific business pain, and you will have found the mother lode of long-term BI system success for your team and your organization.

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