What Does a World-Class BI Program Look Like?

October 21, 2010


I was asked this question last week at an internal meeting for the BI teams of a large Nordic telecom company, who had invited me to do a presentation on BI trends. Here’s my answer:


I was asked this question last week at an internal meeting for the BI teams of a large Nordic telecom company, who had invited me to do a presentation on BI trends. Here’s my answer:

“It’s one where that successfully changes
the information CULTURE of the organization”

Business intelligence is about business and people, not information and technology. Information is useless unless you actually change something in the way your organization does business. And technology is useless unless it actually gets to the people who should be using it.

A truly successful BI program is one that not only provides value to the business with every project, but also inspires the company as a whole to push to the next level of information use.

I regularly present on the topic of best-practice BI, with topics like “Why BI Projects Fail and What to Do About It”, where I go through a long list of the BI problems I’ve seen repeatedly over the last two decades. In this post, I’ve extracted the top five that I think make the biggest difference in the long run:

1. Focus on Changing the Business


If you’re in charge of BI, your job is not providing a technical infrastructure, nor information, nor keeping internal customers happy – it’s using information to improving the way the company works.

BI projects aren’t delivered when you have built the data warehouse and started providing the reports to the business people – that’s just the start of the real project of changing the business.

Yes, of course the business people think that’s their job, but it’s the mindset that is important. Focusing on the end goal – even though you are not directly responsible for it – leads to the types of behavior that correlate to BI success:

  • It helps you ask why people want information, and what they’re going to do when they get it – which in turn helps focus business people who may only have a vague idea of what they’re really trying to do, and what is possible
  • It helps you learn and understand your company’s business
  • It helps you prioritize projects, make the right tradeoffs, and dedicate resources more intelligently
  • It helps you explain the value of your projects in business benefits, not just cost or productivity savings

As an example: somebody comes to you with a strong business need for better data, but the only way to achieve it is through manual information gathering and spreadsheets, and it doesn’t have anything to do with your existing DW or BI infrastructure. Is it still part of your business? Yes! (note this doesn’t mean that your team necessarily does the work).

You should be THE go-to person in the company that best understands both the business information needs and what’s feasible. You should be a clearing-house for best-practice “better run business through better information”, using whatever means are necessary.

2. Focus on People

imageThe figures to the left came from a old IBM survey about IT in general, but ring especially true for business intelligence projects. We spend over 90% of our time on data and technology, while 75% of project success or failure depends on people, process, organization, culture, and leadership.

BI is a crucial interface between the tens of millions of dollars invested in your information systems over the years, and the people who are in a position to unleash some of the value in that investment.

Ultimately, BI projects never fail because of technology alone. Things go wrong all the time, of course, but it’s only if non-technology factors like leadership and expectation setting have been neglected that a BI project truly fails.

There are myriad signs that indicate underinvestment in people: the intended audience is disappointed with the solution(and IT replies “but that’s exactly what you asked us for!”); user adoption is systematically under-funded, with little ongoing training; executives don’t understand “why it all seems so hard – I just want these numbers!”; business teams end up downloading information into Excel because that’s what they’re used to; etc. etc.

If 75% of success is about people, why aren’t we spending 75% of our time on it? If your job is world-class BI, you should be spending a lot more time listening, explaining, evangelizing, and leading than you do “implementing”.

3. Provide Some Simple Data Access for Everyone

imageYou must, of course, focus on the BI projects that provide the most value to your organization. B, but there’s one thing we have to learn from the consumer world: the most effective way to build demand for your product or service is to provide something that’s “too simple”, and then create a community around it.

For example, the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, it wasn’t the most advanced, and it certainly wasn’t the cheapest – but it was the simplest to use. And that’s why it’s the first MP3 player that most people ever heard of.

We design our BI implementations for our power users, and implement what they want – typically lots of complex data and “features”. Apple designed something for everybody, but keeping the number of features deliberately, even artificially low.

I’m convinced that Apple employed somebody whose job it was to say “no”: “Can we add some more buttons?” “No!” “Can we add search?” “No!” “Custom playlists?” “No!”.

Once the iPod was a success, more features were slowly added, and it’s a formula that Apple has repeated with newer devices like the iPhone and iPad – launching with fewer features than the competitors and aiming for volume first, and then extending.

The Web 2.0 world has followed a similar model: Facebook and Twitter did one simple thing well first, then built a community, then provided more features. Even video games follow this model. They start out easy: level one is about understanding the basic controls, and then you slowly build up skills level by level.

How does this apply to business intelligence? You should aim to roll out some simple analytic information to everybody in your organization – such as travel and expenses, or breakdown of mobile phone bills, or budget spending, or time management. And it should be incredibly simple to use – basic reports, with every fancy option turned off, and with no extra logon required.

Once you’ve done this (and promoted it widely), you’ll find that people soon come and ask for more information, other types of information, and more features. People get used to having information, their expectations get higher, and you’ve started changing the information culture from the bottom up.

Unlike rolling out BI to power users, widespread information to everyone sets up a long-term virtuous spiral of people accessing, using, and demanding information.

4. Tell Stories

storytellerObviously, people need to believe in the benefits of BI if you stand a chance of changing the culture of the organization.

It’s notoriously hard to predict the return on investment on business intelligence projects, because “you don’t know what you don’t know”: having better information reveals new areas for improvement.

As a study by IDC showed, the majority of BI benefits are typically in “business process enhancements” which can be very hard to determine in advance.

By following #1 above, you’ll have a better idea of what the business benefits of your project really are, and be able to take credit for them (Sadly, if a Marketing VP, say, improves campaign performance thanks to improved business intelligence, they don’t often include a big ‘thank you’ to the IT organization when they tout their performance to the board)

But this can only take you so far. For all the insistence on “hard numbers,” executives – like the rest of us – are surprisingly anecdote-driven. Just as charities know that focusing on the plight of one child is more effective than a series of statistics, you need to be able to tell the stories behind the numbers. You need to collect real-life examples of how your projects have helped individuals in the organization transform the way you do business.

Here’s the crucial test: if you suddenly find yourself in the elevator with the CEO of your organization, do you have a compelling, 30 second story to tell about how somebody spotted something in the data (a risk, an opportunity, a problem), and was able to act on it? If you don’t, start researching how people are using the data you’re providing. I guarantee you’ll find a great story (and if you don’t, then you really need to rethink the foundations of your BI initiative).

5. Stick With It


With twenty years of experience to draw on, it’s not that the industry as a whole doesn’t know what best-practice BI looks like. But it can be very hard to put into practice.

BI remains a stubbornly complex, hard-to-simplify technological and business problem. It takes time, the environment is ever-changing, and there are no real silver bullets or shortcuts. Every successful project I’ve seen was the result of professionals doing the right incremental things day after day.

You have to roll with the punches and stay pragmatic. It’s not about having a perfect data architecture (nobody will ever achieve this). It’s about making endless iterative improvements, making the right painful tradeoffs, and picking yourself up after every business complaint.

If it helps, you should realize that while you only ever hear about the problems, business people do appreciate the power of the information that you’re providing. For example:

  • According to a CIO magazine review, business executives are actually more likely than CIOs to believe in the importance of technology to the business(they just aren’t that sure that the CIO is qualified/able to deliver)
  • Cindi Howson’s book on Successful Business Intelligence includes a survey that showed that 92% of business people said that BI had contributed somewhat or significantly to company performance (which was higher than the number of IT people that considered their BI projects to be moderately or very successful).

Ultimately, the best way to change the information culture of the organization is to lead by example, and being a tireless advocate for better run businesses. Good luck!