Defining Value in Business Intelligence or Data Strategy

How to create a proof-of-value program that clearly outlines high-level value and success criteria

Investing in business intelligence and buying a car have much in common. During the car hunt, we contemplate exactly what we think we want from the car often causing us to lose sight of what is the real value or purpose of a car. I feel the value is to provide transportation from point A to point B safely as well as one that grows with my needs. I might even add with style. In reality, a car provides more value that dwarfs the transportation consideration. Rather the car we select is a statement of who we are, how adventurous, how pleasure seeking, how family oriented, how we respect the environment. The same could be said for a BI or data strategy. Let’s dig deeper on this topic together to show how choosing a BI or data strategy is really more like buying a car. Strategic business intelligence follows the buying the car philosophy.

The process of choosing a business intelligence platform should be as deliberate as when deciding which car to choose and what data strategy to implement. The BI solution is a statement of how the organization values its professionals, how it treasures truth, analysis and information, how it encourages the revelation of new opportunities, and the responsiveness to recurring problems. A car, properly bought, is nothing less than a competitive advantage. This is the same for strategic BI. Are there differences between a Jeep Wrangler and a Ferrari or for that matter between Excel and a mature business intelligence Solution? Absolutely there are differences and that is why the buying decision must be based on a critical evaluation of your needs and opportunities. Today I often hear from my clients that they chose a particular business intelligence solution because their former boss loved it and had successfully deployed it across the entire organization. This tells me we are often creatures of habit. We make decisions many times based on emotions not logic. We tend to fall victim to the “awesome” marketing and buzz words that these software giants generate. Let’s forget about emotional purchasing and marketing noise and instead talk about what should be primary when deciding the business intelligence solution for your company, the VALUE of the right BI platform or data strategy.

Industry-leading analysts from Gartner report that in 2012, close to 70 percent of BI projects fail to deliver the requirements of their users. Why? There are some very traditional reasons, such as the failure to consider all the costs. By this I mean not taking into consideration costs beyond initial software investment surrounding hardware, implementation costs, FTE support, vendor maintenance, training and education. Gartner cites three additional leading causes:

  • Lack of business involvement
  • Long delivery cycles
  • Poor data quality

While these are three valid issues, there is a greater, overriding cause as to why business intelligence projects keep failing, in my opinion. I have found the primary cause of not being successful is in fact that the sponsoring IT group and/or consultant does a poor job of defining VALUE to the business and how that VALUE will be delivered within the resource constraints and political complexities found in many organizations today.

To begin the process of defining and implementing value, I recommend projects start with a proof of value (POV) program to clearly outline high-level value and success criteria for a successful and sustainable BI project as well as define the challenges that must be overcome. What is a POV program? It is an independent review of the customers’ data maturity and business intelligence including data management process. POV includes establishing a baseline of their current process, identifying critical interaction points and improvements necessary to reduce costs, maximize information access and improve decision making. The POV crystallizes the current state of the environment and maturity of the organization and data. It also focuses the people (skills), process, and tools that are currently in play to the project. To conduct a successful delivery we must determine if the culture can and will support the end game, either by leveraging the current resources or looking at ways to enhance them.

Often, the business case justification for a business intelligence strategy stops at the expected cost savings but is mute on the real value to the business discussed in this article. This is where the missteps start. When looking only at short-term goals or having tunnel vision, the big picture and implementation of best practices suffers. The key to this process is to understand that as the company matures, the need to keep up in this space answers the higher calling for better decision making and improved responsiveness. By not setting the right foundation from day one, the project has the threat of failing and not being adopted enterprise-wide. The road to value starts at the projects inception by making sure the data strategy is agreed upon by both the business and the IT and is achievable. One must ensure that the house is built on a solid foundation and has the ability to expand as needed. An organization must stay focused on the adoption of a platform that is focused on value, and not solely cost.

The next step to defining value is a phased approach to the design and development. As an Analytics Champion I feel an approach that really works is one where our team works closely with the client to define the area where the highest value can be achieved. We do not assume the definition of value, rather our strategy is to guide or assist in leading the organization to define what is most important to them. It is the organization, inclusive of business, IT and an Executive Sponsor who defines the specific value proposition for the design phase. The course of this phase will often involve the flow, storage, and interaction of data followed by the presentation layer.

One option during this process is to consider building a single data mart for the reporting needs (hence our agile BI approach and the crawl, walk, run method of implementation). This is one of the many common strategies for combining both operational and transactional data so as to consolidate disparate systems into the single source of trusted data for historical reporting across the enterprise. The presentation layer follows this step, which allows for the business’s interactions. One example is by providing dashboards. Similar to the car, we discussed at the beginning, this gives you a snapshot glance to measure and gauge the health of your business (or car) We find the best value is to take these projects in 90 day spans with measurable deliverables. We find this helps us to not overwhelm the team and sets proper expectations.

After phase one is implemented; the organization recognizes the value that has been achieved. In some cases BI departments are formed, or even better yet a Center of Excellence (COE) is created where champions in both IT and the business collaborate to support the ongoing mission of the BI environment. To be clear, a COE is nothing more than the way to implement best practices for go forward BI processes and execution. The value in our method of implementing BI is not in spending time developing reports, but instead to spend more time with the body of users, interacting, analyzing and sharing trusted information to help them make better, more informed decisions. This is exactly what our customer at Troy Chemical has recognized to be true. Today they, as a firm, are able to leverage data to make better business decisions and are spending less time trying to organize and validate data to determine who has come to the table with the right information.

While value is recognized at this stage of the project, a critical point of success or failure of all BI projects, for long-term value, is to examine the need for training and education within the organization. Finding champions in the organization and making them leaders who drive awareness and excitement are critical to continued success. Sadly this is the portion of a project that often fails to be funded and overlooked. This is why a COE is such a good practice.

Companies can vastly increase their chances of success with their BI project by using the approach discussed in this article around selecting, implementing, and leveraging the tools. This starts with a sharper focus on pre-defining the VALUE, implementing proven best practices to drive home that value and in continued support and education. It’s also important to leverage wins with shorter time-frames using existing resources and not boiling the ocean. Remember to focus on design and development, recognize value in important areas of the business, and remove all the unnecessary noise. This is and will be an investment for the lifetime of the organization.

In closing, remember this critical point, the value in successful business intelligence is similar in some cases to selecting a car. You don’t want to focus solely on getting a car to just get from point A to point B when with proper planning you can get a car that fits your needs and grows with your changing needs. You need to keep sight on what is the true meaning of value. Measure your success each step of the way and work as a team.