Las Vegas – As everyone knows by now, many companies have gone tactical in BI and related investments. In a time of CapEx freezes, people are innovating in interesting ways, which is a good bit of the theme at the latest TDWI conference here in Las Vegas and gets me to the point of this post.

We like to think that years by themselves are a continuous improvement program, and folks at conferences also tend to feel that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That’s the message we usually get from conference podiums also.

I tend to think that way myself, but today in a panel discussion I heard an interesting comment from Celia Fuller, the data warehouse director of strategy at Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina. Fuller, awarded by TDWI and known for a good bit of success in the field of data governance, pointed out that cumulative wisdom isn’t linear, and grows better or worse without regard for time.

She called it a long journey that isn’t a straight line. “Our business intelligence program has been at its best with a grade of ‘B’ and at its worst with a ‘D.’ Right now I’d say we’re a ‘C’ and that we were probably better five years ago than were are today.”

Not many program directors would trot out such words at a conference, and for that Muller gets our merit badge for pragmatism. She also wins for change management since few companies want to revisit a failure that followed success nearly as much as they love the opposite.

At BCBS North Carolina, the company set out after a broader enterprise goal that required programmatic transformation. “We were well-suited to projects of the time but came to realize things needed to be broader and more transformational. I think we were really good at things that came to engaging with and solving problems, but now we’re building a more enterprise plan for data stewardship and we’re probably a ‘C,’” Fuller says.

Companies like to think they can leapfrog success with evolutions that ought to come quicker and easier, but it’s rarely the case. The burdens of business transformation are also subject to vagaries of leadership changes, market focus or seesawing priorities of perhaps data quality versus, say, new Web initiatives, not to mention an economic spinout.

These days, “moving on” is important philosophy of getting away from groupthink that manifests itself in big programs that were believed would save the day yet often went undelivered or just didn’t work.

But setbacks are evolutionary too, and should be documented rather than swept under the rug with a group hush.

Retrospect means looking back and recounting an experience, while hindsight means you generally wish you would have done something different if you had thought about it at the time.

The wild swings and uncertainties of modern markets means companies are probably less guilty of errors of hindsight than they once were. But you’ve got to believe a little more honest ongoing retrospect might provide more guidance and derail a few data train wrecks in the making.

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