“Involving users in business intelligence strategy key for success” – Christina Torode on SearchCio-Midmarket.com

Search CIO Midmarket Christina Torode

While browsing the, slightly idiosyncratically named, infoBOOM! Must-know people, ideas and opinions for mid-sized business group on LinkedIn.com today, I came across a link to an artcile about Business Intelligence on SearchCio-Midmarket.com (part of the TechTarget stable). This was by Christina Torode and is entitled, Involving users in business intelligence strategy key for success (please note that registration is required to read the full article, though this is a relatively painless process).

Christina cites the opinions of a number of industry experts and practitioners (as one would expect, the latter are mostly from the mid-market) in making her case, which is one that I pretty much agree with. These include: Boris Evelson at Forrester Research; Rob Fosnaugh, BI lead at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co.; and Chris Brady, CIO at Dealer Services Corp. The experiences of Rob and Chris in particular provide some useful pointers to techniques that may be appropriate for you to use in your own BI projects.

Commitment vs Involvement

I do however have one minor quibble. This is to do with the use of the word “involvement” in this context. Some of my concern may be explained by recourse to a dictionary.

  involve /invólv/ v.tr. 1 (often foll. by in) cause (a person or thing) to participate, or share the experience or effect (in a situation, activity, etc.). (O.E.D.)  

The point that I want to make is perhaps more clearly stated in the rather earthy adage about the difference between involvement and commitment relating to breakfast; this being that a chicken was involved with it, but a pig was committed to it.

To me involving business people in a BI project is not enough. It implies that IT is in the driving seat and that the project is essentially a technological one. Instead what I believe is required is a full partnership. I have written about the lengths that I have gone to in trying to achieve this in Scaling-up Performance Management and Developing an international BI strategy.

Aside: It is worth noting that the former of these articles covers a 9-month collaboration with 30 business people to define the overall BI needs of an insurance organisation in 13 European countries. This contrasts with a 2-month process at another (rather different) insurance organisation, Brotherhood Mutual, that Christina cites.

I should mention that the exercise I describe resulted in nine major reporting and analysis areas (chronologically: Profitability, Broker Management, Claims Management, Portfolio Management, Budget Management, Dashboard, Expense Management, Exposure Management and Service & Workflow) as opposed to a single one (Claims) at Brotherhood Mutual; so maybe the durations are comparable.

Either way the main lesson is that it takes time to get good requirements in BI.

The real-life examples that Christina mentions in her article seem to also lean a little more towards partnership / commitment than to involvement. It may seem that I am splitting hairs on this issue (maybe this is a byproduct of the things that I learnt about semantics yesterday), but I have seen BI projects fail to deliver on their promise specifically because the IT team became too internally focussed and lost touch with their business users after an initial (and probably inadequately thorough) requirement-gathering exercise.

Indeed I was once brought in to act as an internal consultant for a failing BI project and my main diagnosis was precisely that the business people were semi-detached from it. They had been “involved”, but this was never to a great degree and had also occurred some time in the past. My recommendation was ongoing and in-depth collaboration, to the degree that the BI team becomes a joint IT / business one with the distinctions between people’s roles blurring somewhat at the edges.

This partnership approach has worked for me (the results may be viewed here) and I have seen the lack of an IT / business partnership lead to failure in BI on a number of occasions. Rather than being the minor point I initially mentioned, I think that the difference between involvement and commitment can be make or break for a BI project.

Christina Torode has been a high tech journalist for more than a decade. Before joining TechTarget, she was a reporter for technology trade publication CRN covering a variety of beats from security and networking to telcos and the channel. She also spent time as a business reporter and editor with Eagle Tribune Publishing in eastern Massachusetts. For SearchCIO.com and SearchCIO-Midmarket, Christina covers business applications and virtualization technologies.

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