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Bridging the IT/business gap in business intelligence projects

When deploying a business intelligence project for your customers, there is often a gap between the IT department and the business department. Learn how to bridge that gap by getting the right people involved in the project and following established best practices.

Solution provider takeaway: Consultants can guide their customers toward successful business intelligence projects...

by fostering cooperation between IT and business departments and following best practices.

Business intelligence (BI) projects face a unique challenge for success: acceptance by your customer's business users. Unlike pure technology projects, where metrics such as transaction processing speed or uptime are measures of success, or with the implementation of a new order entry system, where the user base has no choice but to use the application, BI applications often replace an existing information delivery process. But since the success of a BI application is measured by the value the business users derive from it, a BI implementation project won't be complete until the business users give their blessing by actually using and trusting the system.

No matter how much faster, cheaper, more accurate or easier a new BI application is, people naturally resist change. While the old method may be slow and cumbersome -- possibly requiring the cutting and pasting of data from multiple worksheets and file downloads -- it is a process and system that is trusted and known. And, users of BI applications are typically knowledge workers -- middle and senior management who can be very skeptical of anything new that delivers the numbers and information they depend on to plan, manage and run their business. In some ways, acceptance by business users represents the biggest challenge and failure point for business intelligence projects.

Beyond that, a big disconnect occurs during many business intelligence projects that exacerbates the problem. While on the surface, it appears that the business group is involved in the project, in actuality, those staff members are busy with their day-to-day jobs and don't have the time to give each step of the process the right level of attention.

With all these impediments, it takes much more than your traditional IT project delivery process and methods for a successful BI implementation. As a business intelligence consultant, you need to know how to facilitate cooperation and collaboration between your customer's IT and business groups.

The right team

A successful business intelligence project requires two things: a dedicated in-house project team and a "global center of excellence." They fulfill the need to get the right people involved in the project from the start and follow established business intelligence project best practices.

The project team should include four roles or groups: senior-level business sponsors, steering committee members, user group members and highly experienced BI strategists/analysts.

The business sponsor/owner should be someone within the organization who's respected and has the authority to lead the project and make decisions. This person should function as the overall project director, leader, champion and evangelist.

The steering committee should include senior business executives. The group's goal is to set the longer-term direction of the BI system, decide the priority of applications and provide project approval and funding. This group must proactively communicate the importance of the BI program to the organization as a whole and those involved in the project.

The user group should contain a select group of "working management," people who will be involved in the details of the project. From requirement definition through testing, these people must be highly knowledgeable about the business, goal-oriented and analytical in nature. This group "owns" the business intelligence applications that will be built, and must be made to feel that the applications are theirs. Almost daily involvement of members of this group is frequently required throughout the project.
The BI strategists/analysts function as bridge builders. They have a unique skill set -- they understand the overall data warehousing/BI system development lifecycle but can also talk and relate to businesspeople on their terms.
We all hear businesspeople can't articulate their requirements; they want everything or are unresponsive. Any of these should be a red flag that either the importance and purpose of the BI program has not been communicated or embraced by the project sponsor/steering committee or that the project team members assigned to work with the business are not the right people for the job.

Project principles

With the right team members assembled, you can move on to concerns about process, communication and education. When executing a business intelligence project, there are two important principles to keep in mind: First, the process or methods used must be top-down and business-driven. Attempting to drive a BI application design from a predominantly bottom-up data and technology approach is sure to fail. Secondly, if the BI application is to be accepted and have the business impact expected, some level of process change must occur. Business users will have the ability to interact with the data to identify and provide value quickly, more easily and with more flexibility than the prior system. This type of process change won't happen after you deploy the BI application unless it's understood and planned for well in advance.

With every new business intelligence project within an organization, the BI team must educate the business on what BI is and what it is not, and manage the business expectations around what problems the project will solve and what new capabilities the application will deliver. I recommend repeating both of these throughout the business intelligence project whenever the opportunity presents itself. If you scope for success and educate and communicate throughout the project lifecycle, and the business receives what is expected, there's a much higher likelihood that the application will be accepted.

Education, by both formal and informal means, is important to level the playing field and set a common foundation of project knowledge across the organization. Business users must understand the intent and purpose of data warehouse technology. They also need to know what business functions data warehouse technology is good at supporting and what functions are best left to other technologies. The business users must also have a full understanding of the business scope, the target audience, the timeframe for rollout, the information scope and so on. An educated, informed, involved business user is, in the end, usually a happy user.

A BI center of excellence

Separate from a particular BI system implementation is the concept of a BI center of excellence (CoE). At a typical company, the CoE is a collection of people, processes, technologies, tools and assets, organized toward the goal of fostering business acceptance, realizing ROI and providing the lowest cost of ownership and the highest level of asset return for business intelligence projects. The CoE is the one resource that all BI project teams should use for a consistent and successful project.

The guiding principles of the CoE are to establish sponsorship and governance; leverage and promote methodology, best practices and standards; provide training and coaching; select and adopt enterprise architecture, platform and tools; measure success; ensure business acceptance; and manage technology wisely.

Think of the CoE as building a BI consultancy within your customer's organization. The methodologies, training programs and technical resources are all developed and maintained within one specialized organization committed to service. A BI CoE does not have to be built all at once; it is usually too much for an organization to take on. It can grow over time as BI applications are deployed and enhanced. Key components -- people, processes and technologies -- of a BI CoE include BI methodologies, systems development lifecycle (SDLC) tools, communication tools and processes, data/technical/application architectures, and external support services.

I hope these tips help you to bridge the gap with the business community in your business intelligence projects. Building a close working relationship will make your job easier -- and much more enjoyable, when you see the hard work and many hours you've spent building a BI application pay off with immediate and welcomed acceptance.

About the author
John Onder is a partner in the Chicago Business Intelligence Group, with more than 20 years of experience. He has been involved in all facets of IT strategy, planning and development engagements, as well as management consulting, business strategy and reengineering projects. He is an expert in the field of business intelligence, data warehousing, CRM analytics and decision support systems.


This was last published in August 2008

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