If there's one step that analysts and consultants say is critical to mastering the art of managing business intelligence projects, it's getting the business side actively involved in BI processes -- not just to help foster buy-in and make sure you're meeting business needs, but also to get business users to take on a lot of the heavy lifting involved in creating reports and BI dashboards.
Because business users are closest to the data going into BI systems, their involvement is paramount to successful business intelligence management efforts, according to analysts such as Boris Evelson of Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. And, Evelson said, technical advances in BI software are making it possible for end users to handle much of the process of setting up reports and dashboards that present data in the way they want to see it.
"With all the modern, user-friendly BI tools, there's absolutely no reason why Excel-savvy business users can't create 80% of their own business reports and dashboards," said Evelson, Forrester's principal BI analyst. That will free up BI managers and IT professionals to focus on the more strategic aspects of deploying business intelligence systems, he added.
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Evelson also recommends that companies stay away from giving the IT department control of BI projects, particularly if they're setting up a centralized team to take charge of BI management enterprise-wide. While IT's strengths in data preparation, management and governance are critical for effective BI initiatives, treating a BI program as yet another IT project doesn't bode well for its long-term success, he cautioned.
"Business ownership is the main driver for success," Evelson said. "There's a reason that the term 'business intelligence' has a key word in it: business. IT traditionalists who are very successful in other areas shouldn't assume that all of those best practices translate into BI best practices."
That said, business managers and workers don't always have the best notion of how to prioritize BI project plans, said Barry Devlin, founder of 9sight Consulting, a BI consultancy based in Cape Town, South Africa. It's easy to let short-term requirements and demands drive BI development and deployment strategies, but that also can cause problems in the long term, according to Devlin. He said that representatives from the business, the BI team and IT should develop a BI roadmap "as equals, rather than the business always having the right idea."
Here are some other recommended dos and don'ts for successfully managing BI programs from Devlin, Evelson and other analysts:
Create a roadmap, but don't set it in stone. A long-term BI plan is vital, Devlin said: "You have to have a logically defined series of steps that makes sense for the rollout, laid on top of business requirements, so you can stage out the program and still provide something useful for the business [in the short term]." But he added that organizations shouldn't get so locked into a BI strategy that they aren't flexible enough to respond to business changes. "If you think you can plan something 12 months into the future without anything changing, you're living in cloud cuckoo land," Devlin said. "You have to have the flexibility to change the plan as the business needs change. But at the same time, manage the vision so it's not thrown off completely."
Deliver BI capabilities that business users can embrace. This point should be something of a no-brainer, but that isn't always the case. Business users sometimes have a hard time adequately translating their requirements for BI and IT developers, which can result in reports and dashboards that aren't what the users expected, said Lyndsay Wise, president and founder of Toronto-based consultancy WiseAnalytics. BI managers need to make sure that they accurately identify the BI goals of their business counterparts up front, Wise added: "You have find out what makes them tick and make sure [your BI system] addresses those needs."
Choose a BI manager with the right mix of skills. Managing a BI program takes a special breed of employee, one possessed with a combination of technical, people and process management skills, Devlin advised. "The most important thing is the ability to manage organizational issues as opposed to technical understanding," he said. "Being able to work well with the business and understand business needs are vital."
Don't get stuck in the same-old, same-old. BI is rapidly evolving as a discipline, and successful business intelligence management requires the ability to reevaluate and experiment with new approaches and technologies in order to keep up with BI best practices. "Groups often get paralyzed in doing what they've always done," said William McKnight, president of McKnight Consulting Group in Plano, Texas. "Sometimes you have to break through barriers, change your mindset and get things moving in a more progressive fashion."
Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for more than 25 years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.
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This was first published in September 2012