The author would like to acknowledge the input and assistance of his fellow delegates, both initially at the IRM(UK) CDO Executive Forum itself and later in reviewing earlier drafts of this article. As ever, responsibility for any errors or omissions remains mine alone.
Time flies as Virgil observed some 2,045 years ago. A rather shorter six months back I attended the inaugural IRM(UK) Chief Data Officer Executive Forum and recently I returned for the second of what looks like becoming biannual meetings. Last time the umbrella event was the IRM(UK) Enterprise Data and Business Intelligence Conference 2015 , this session was part of the companion conference: IRM(UK) Master Data Management Summit / and Data Governance Conference 2016.
This article looks to highlight some of the areas that were covered in the forum, but does not attempt to be exhaustive, instead offering an impressionistic view of the meeting. One reason for this (as well as the author’s temperament) is that – as previously – in order to allow free exchange of ideas, the details of the meeting are intended to stay within the confines of the room.
Last November, ten themes emerged from the discussions and I attempted to capture these over two articles. The headlines appear in the box below:
One area of interest for me was how things had moved on in the intervening months and I’ll look to comment on this later.
By way of background, some of the attendees were shared with the November 2015 meeting, but there was also a smattering of new faces, including the moderator, Peter Campbell, President of DAMA’s Belgium and Luxembourg chapter. Sectors represented included: Distribution, Extractives, Financial Services, and Governmental.
The discussions were wide ranging and perhaps less structured than in November’s meeting, maybe a facet of the familiarity established between some delegates at the previous session. However, there were four broad topics which the attendees spent time on: Management of Change (Theme 5); Data Privacy / Trust; Innovation; and Value / Business Outcomes.
While clearly the second item on this list has its genesis in the European Commission’s recently adopted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR ), it is interesting to note that the other topics suggest that some elements of the CDO agenda appear to have shifted in the last six months. At the time of the last meeting, much of what the group talked about was foundational or even theoretical. This time round there was both more of a practical slant to the conversation, “how do we get things done?” and a focus on the future, “how do we innovate in this space?”
Perhaps this also reflects that while CDO 1.0s focussed on remedying issues with data landscapes and thus had a strong risk mitigation flavour to their work, CDO 2.0s are starting to look more at value-add and delivering insight (Theme 6). Of course some organisations are yet to embark on any sort of data-related journey (CDO 0.0 maybe), but in the more enlightened ones at least, the CDO’s focus is maybe changing, or has already changed (Theme 3).
Some flavour of the discussions around each of the above topics is provided below, but as mentioned above, these observations are both brief and impressionistic:
Management of Change
The title of Managing Change has been chosen (by the author) to avoid any connotations of Change Management. It was recognised by the group that there are two related issues here. The first is the organisational and behavioural change needed to both ensure that data is fit-for-purpose and that people embrace a more numerical approach to decision-making; perhaps this area is better described as Cultural Transformation. The second is the fact (also alluded to at the previous forum) that Change Programmes tend to have the effect of degrading data assets over time, especially where monetary or time factors lead data-centric aspects of project to be de-scoped.
On Cultural Transformation, amongst a number of issues discussed, the need to answer the question “What’s in it for me?” stood out. This encapsulates the human aspect of driving change, the need to engage with stakeholders  (at all levels) and the importance of sound communication of what is being done in the data space and – more importantly – why. These are questions to which an entire sub-section of this blog is devoted.
On the potentially deleterious impact of Change  on data landscapes, it was noted that whatever CDOs build, be these technological artefacts or data-centric processes, they must be designed to be resilient in the face of both change and Change.
Data Privacy / Trust
As referenced above, the genesis of this topic was GDPR. However, it was interesting that the debate extended from this admittedly important area into more positive territory. This related to the observation that the care with which an organisation treats its customers’ or business partners’ data (and the level of trust which this generates) can potentially become a differentiator or even a source of competitive advantage. It is good to report an essentially regulatory requirement possibly morphing into a more value-added set of activities.
It might be expected that discussions around this topic would focus on perennials such as Big Data or Advanced Analytics. Instead the conversation was around other areas, such as distributed / virtualised data and the potential impact of Block Chain technology  on Data Management work. Inevitably The Internet of Things also featured, together with the ethical issues that this can raise. Other areas discussed were as diverse as the gamification of Data Governance and Social Physics, so we cast the net widely.
Value / Business Outcomes
Here we have the strongest link back into the original ten themes (specifically Theme 6). Of course the acme of data strategies is of little use if it does not deliver positive business outcomes. In many organisations, focus on just remediating issues with the current data landscape could consume a massive chunk of overall Change / IT expenditure. This is because data issues generally emanate from a wide variety of often linked and frequently long-standing organisational weaknesses. These can be architectural, integrational, procedural, operational or educational in nature. One of the challenges for CDOs everywhere is how to parcel up their work in a way that adds value, gets things done and is accretive to both the overall Business and Data strategies (which are of course intimately linked as per Theme 10). There is also the need to balance foundational work with more tactical efforts; the former is necessary for lasting benefits to be secured, but the latter can showcase the value of Data Management and thus support further focus on the area.
While the risk aspect of data issues gets a foot in the door of the Executive Suite, it is only by demonstrating commercial awareness and linking Data Management work to increased business value that any CDO is ever going to get traction. (Theme 6).
The next IRM(UK) CDO Executive Forum will take place on 9th November 2016 in London – if you would like to apply for a place please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wikipedia offers a digestible summary of the regulation here. Anyone tempted to think this is either a parochial or arcane area is encouraged to calculate what the greater of €20 million and 4% of their organisation’s worldwide turnover might be and then to consider that the scope of the Regulation covers any company (regardless of its domicile) that processes the data of EU residents.
I’ve been itching to use this classic example of stakeholder management for some time:
The capital “c” is intentional.
Harvard Business Review has an interesting and provocative article on the subject of Block Chain technology.
Given my lack of exposure to the event as a whole, I will restrict myself to writing about a comment that came up in the question section of my slot. As per my article on presenting in public, I try to always allow time at the end for questions as this can often be the most interesting part of the talk; for delegates and for me. My IRM slot was 45 minutes this time round, so I turned things over to the audience after speaking for half-an-hour.
There were a number of good questions and I did my best to answer them, based on past experience of both what had worked and what had been less successful. However, one comment stuck in my mind. For obvious reasons, I will not identify either the delegate, or the organisation that she worked for; but I also had a brief follow-up conversation with her afterwards.
She explained that her organisation had in place a formal data governance process and that a lot of time and effort had been put into communicating with the people who actually entered data. In common with my first pillar, this had focused on educating people as to the importance of data quality and how this fed into the organisation’s objectives; a textbook example of how to do things, on which the lady in question should be congratulated. However, she also faced an issue; one that is probably more common than any of us information professionals would care to admit. Her problem was not at the bottom, or in the middle of her organisation, but at the top.
In particular, though data governance and a thorough and consistent approach to both the entry of data and transformation of this to information were all embedded into the organisation; this did not prevent the leaders of each division having their own people take the resulting information, load it into Excel and “improve” it by “adjusting anomalies”, “smoothing out variations”, “allowing for the impact of exceptional items”, “better reflecting the opinions of field operatives” and the whole panoply of euphemisms for changing figures so that they tell a more convenient story.
In one sense this was rather depressing, someone having got so much right, but still facing challenges. However, it also chimes with another theme that I have stressed many times under the banner of cultural transformation; it is crucially important than any information initiative either has, or works assiduously to establish, the active support of all echelons of the organisation. In some of my most successful BI/DW work, I have had the benefit of the direct support of the CEO. Equally, it is is very important to ensure that the highest levels of your organisation buy in before commencing on a stepped-change to its information capabilities.
My experience is that enhanced information can have enormous payback. But it is risky to embark on an information programme without this being explicitly recognised by the senior management team. If you avoid laying this important foundation, then this is simply storing up trouble for the future. The best BI/DW projects are totally aligned with the strategic goals of the organisation. Given this, explaining their objectives and soliciting executive support should be all the easier. This is something that I would encourage my fellow information professionals to seek without exception.
Unfortunately one of the Ovum presenters, Madan Sheina, was ill, but Sarah did a great job running the session. The set up of the room and the number of delegates both encouraged interaction and there was a great atmosphere with lots of questions from the attendees and some interesting exchanges of ideas. Work commitments meant that I had to leave after lunch, which was a shame as I am sure that – based on what I saw in the morning – the afternoon workshops sessions would have been both entertaining and productive.
I certainly enjoyed my presentation – on Initiating and Developing a BI Strategy – which focussed on both my framework for success in Business Intelligence and, in particular, addressing the important cultural transformation aspects of these. Thank you also to the delegates both for the questions and observations and for kindly awarding my talk an 83% rating via the now ubiquitous seminar questionnaire.
Bouldering and Cultural Transformation
As part of my section on change management, I covered some of the themes that I introduced in my article Perseverance. In this I spoke about one of the types of rock climbing that I enjoy; bouldering. Bouldering is regular rock climbing on steroids, it is about climbing ultra-hard, but short climbs; often on boulders – hence the name. I compared the level of commitment and persistence required for success in bouldering to the need for the same attributes in change management initiatives.
I spoke to a few different delegates about this analogy during a coffee break. One in particular came up with an interesting expansion on my rock climbing theme. He referred to how people engaged in mountaineering and multi-pitch rock climbing make progress in a series of stages, establishing a new base at a higher point before attempting the next challenge. He went on to link this to making incremental progress on IT projects. I thought this was an interesting observation and told the gentleman in question that he had provided the inspiration for a future blog article.
An introduction to lead climbing
The above video is excerpted from the introduction to Hard Grit a classic 1998 climbing film by Slackjaw productions. It features climbing on the Gritstone (a type of hard sandstone) edges of the UK’s Peak District. This famous sequence shows a pretty horrendous fall off of a Peak District test piece called Gaia at Black Rocks. Amazingly the climber received no worse injuries than a severely battered and lacerated leg. Despite its proximity to my home town of London, Gritstone climbing has never been my cup of tea – it is something of an acquired taste and one that I have never appreciated as much as its many devotees.
As an aside you can see a photo of a latter-day climber falling off the same route at the beginning of my article, Some reasons why IT projects fail. I’m glad to say in this photo, unlike the video above, the climber is wearing a helmet!
What the clip illustrates is the dangers inherent in the subject of this article; traditional lead climbing. OK the jargon probably needs some explanation. First of all climbing is a very broad church, in this piece I’ll be ignoring whole areas such as mountaineering, soloing and the various types of winter and ice climbing. I am going to focus on roped climbing on rock, something that generally requires dry weather (unless you are a masochist or the British weather changes on you).
In this activity, one person climbs (unsurprisingly the climber) and another holds the rope attached to them (the belayer). The belayer uses a mechanism called a belay device to do this, but we will elide these details. With my background in Business Intelligence, I’ll now introduce some dimensions with which you can “slice and dice” this activity:
multi-pitch / single pitch
Single-pitch climbs are shorter than a length of rope (typically 50-70m) and often happen on rock outcrops such as in the Peak District mentioned above. The climber completes the climb and then the belayer may follow them up if they want, or alternatively the climber might walk round to find an easy decent and the pair will then go and find another climb.
Multi-pitch climbs consist of at least two pitches; and sometimes many more. They tend to be in a mountain environment. One person may climb a pitch and then alternate with their partner, or the same person may climb each section first. It depends on the team.
top roping / leading
Top roping is not a very precise term (bottom roping might be more accurate) but is generally taken to mean that the rope runs from the belayer, to the top of the climb and then down to the climber.
As the climber ascends, the belayer (hopefully!) takes in the slack, but (again hopefully!) without hauling the climber up the route. This means that if the climber falls (and the belayer is both competent and attentive) they should be caught by the rope almost immediately. Obviously this arrangement only works on single-pitch climbs.
In lead climbing, or leading, the rope runs from the belayer up to the climber. As the climber ascends, they attach the rope to various points in the rock on the climb (for how they do this see the next bullet point).
Assuming that the climber is able to make a good attachment to the rock (again see next point) the issue here is how far they fall. If they climb 2m above their last attachment point, then a slip at this point will see them swinging 2m below this point – a total fall of 4m, much longer than when top roping. Also if the last attachment point is say 10m above the ground and the climber falls off say 8m above this, then slack in the system and rope stretch will probably see them hit the ground; something that should never happen in top roping.
[As an aside true top roping is what happens when the belayer climbs up after the climber. Here they are now belayed by the original climber from above. However no one uses the term top roping for this, instead they talk about bringing up the second, or seconding. Top roping is reserved for the practice of bottom roping described above, no one said that climbing was a logical sport!]
sport / traditionalIn the last point I referred to a lead climber mysteriously attaching themselves to the rock as they ascend. The way that they do this determines whether they are engaged in sport or traditional climbing (though there is some blurriness around the edges).
In sport climbing, holes are pre-drilled into the rock at strategic intervals (normally 3-5m apart, but sometimes more). Into these are glued either a metal staple or a single bolt with a metal hanger on it that has a hole in it.
The process of equiping a sport route in this way can take some time, particularly if it is overhanging and of course it needs to be done well if the bolts are to hold a climber’s fall. A single-pitch sport climb may have 10 or more of these bolts, plus generally a lower-off point at the top.
The climber will take with them at least the same number of quick draws as there are bolts. These are two spring-loaded carabiners joined by a section of strong tape. As the climber ascends, they clip one end of a quick-draw to the staple or hanger and the other end over the rope attaching them to their belayer.
So long as the person who drilled and inserted the bolts did a good job and so long as the climber is competent in clipping themselves into these; then sport climbing should be relatively safe. At this point I should stress that I know of good climbers who have died sport climbing, often by making a simple mistake, often after having completed a climb and looking to lower off. Sport climbing is a relatively safer form of climbing, but it is definitively not 100% safe; no form of climbing is.
Because of its [relative] safety, sport climbing has something of the ethos of bouldering, with a focus on climbing at your limit as the systems involved should prevent serious injury in normal circumstances.
In traditional climbing (uniformly called trad) the difference is that there are no pre-placed bolts, instead the climber has to take advantage of the nature of the rock to arrange their own attachment points. This means that you have to take the contents of a small hardware store with you on your climb. The assorted pieces of gear that you might use to protect yourself include: Nuts/wires (which you try to wedge into small cracks):
Hexes (which you try to wedge into large cracks):
Cams/Friends (spring-loaded mechanical devices that you place in parallel cracks – the latter name being a make of cams):
Slings (which you use to lasso spikes, or thread through any convenient holes in the rock):
Once you have secured any of the above into or around the rock, you clip in with a quick-draw as in Sport climbing and heave a sigh of relief.
In the video that started this section, Jean-minh Trin-thieu falls (a long way) on to a cam, which thankfully holds. The issue on this particular climb is that there are no more opportunities to place gear after the final cam at round about half-way up. The nature of the rock means that a lot of Gritsone climbing is like this; one of the reasons that it is not a favourite of mine.
In any case, having established the above dimensions, I am going to drill down via two of them to concentrate on just trad leading. My comments apply equally to multi- and single-pitch, but the former offers greater scope for getting yourself into trouble.
The many perils of trad leading
One of the major issues with trad climbing, particularly multi-pitch trad climbing in a mountain environment is that you are never quite sure what you need to take. The more gear you clip to your harness, the more likely you are to be able to deal with any eventuality, but the heavier you are going to be and the harder it will be to climb. Some one once compared trad leading to climbing wearing a metal skirt.
The issue here is that not only do you have to find somewhere to place this protective gear, you have to place it well so that it is not dislodged as you climb past, or pulls out if you fall. What adds to this problem is that you may have to try to place say a wire in a situation where you are holding on to a small hold with one hand, with only one foot on a hold and the other dangling. You may also be on an overhang and thus with all gravity’s force coming to bear on your tendons. At such moments thoughts like “how far below was my last piece of gear?”, “how confident am I that I placed it well?” and “what happens if I can’t fiddle this piece of metal into this crack before my fingers un-peal?” tend to come to mind with alarming ease.
It is not unheard of for a trad leader to climb up many metres, placing an assortment of gear en route, only to fall off and have all of it rip out, a phenomenon call “unzipping”, thankfully not something I have experienced directly; though I have seen it happen to other people.
These additional uncertainties tend to lead to a more cautious approach to trad leading, with many people climbing within their abilities on trad climbs. Some people push themselves on trad and some get away with it for a while. However there is a saying about there being old climbers and bold climbers, but no old bold climbers.
The links with business projects
I have written quite a few times before about the benefits of an incremental approach, so long as this bears the eventual strategic direction in mind (see for example: Tactical Meandering and Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI). In rock climbing, even within a single pitch, it is often recommended to break this into sections, particularly if there are obvious places (e.g. ledges) where you can take a bit of a rest and consider the next section. This also helps with not being too daunted; often the biggest deal is to start climbing and once you are committed then things become easier (though of course this advice can also get you in over your head on occasion).
Splitting a climb into sections is a good idea, but – in the same way as with business projects – you need to keep your eye on your eventual destination. If you don’t you may be so focussed on the current moves that you go off route and then have to face potentially difficult climbing to get back where you need to be. The equivalent in business would be projects that do not advance the overall programme.
However the analogy doesn’t stop there. If we break a single-pitch trad lead climb into smaller sections, those between each piece of gear that you place, then it is obvious that you need to pay particular attention to the piece of equipment that you are about to employ. If you do this well, then you have minimised the distance that you will fall and this will bolster your confidence for the next piece of climbing. If you rush placing your gear, or assume that it is sort of OK, then at the best you will give yourself unnecessary concerns about your climbing for the next few metres. At worst a fall could lead to this gear ripping and a longer fall, or even hitting the ground.
In business projects, if you take an incremental approach, then in the same way you must remember that you will be judged on the success or failure of the most recent project. Of course if you have a track record of earlier success then this can act as a safety net; the same as when your highest piece of gear fails, but the next one catches you. However, it is not the most comfortable of things to take a really long leader fall and similarly it is best to build on the success of one project with further successes instead of resting on your laurels.
Of course the consequences of rushing your interim steps in rock climbing can be a lot more terminal than in business. Nevertheless failure in either activity is not welcome and it is best to take every precaution to avoid it.
I started my own feasibility study today, climbing [sadly only indoors] for the first time in the six, or so, weeks since I injured myself. Learning from my previous impetuousness I stuck to lowly V0s, working up only as far as V2 (for anyone interested an explanation of bouldering grades can be found here). My patience in forgoing climbing for a month and a half, together with my caution today seems to have paid off. Aside from a few tweaks, my damaged finger seems to have come through OK. I now need to remember to build things up very slowly and back-off at the first sign of any crunchiness whatsoever.
As per my previous analogy, it similarly takes time to turn round business or IT performance. Change is more of a marathon than a sprint (though often some basic things can be done a lot quicker). Staying with the area of rock climbing / business cross-overs, another previous article – Perseverance – highlighted the importance of this attribute in both areas. My aim is to take my own advice!
The discussion included the predictable references to GIGO, but conversation then moved on to who has responsibility for data quality, IT or the business.
As regular readers of this column will know, I view this as an unhelpful distinction. My belief is that IT is a type of business department, with specific skills, but engaged in business work and, in this, essentially no different to say the sales department or the strategy department. Looking at the question through this prism, it becomes tautological. However, if we ignore my peccadillo about this issue, we could instead ask whether responsibility for data quality should reside in IT or not-IT (I will manfully resist the temptation to write ~IT or indeed IT’); with such a change, I accept that this is now a reasonable question.
Answering a modified version of the question
My basic answer is that both groups will bring specific skills to the party and a partnership approach is the one that is most likely to end in success. There are however some strong arguments for IT playing a pivotal role and my aim is to expand on these in the rest of this article.
Before I enumerate these, one thing that I think is very important is that data quality is seen as a broad issue that requires a broad approach to remedy it. I laid out what I see as the four pillars of improving data quality in an earlier post: Using BI to drive improvements in data quality. This previous article goes into much more detail about the elements of a successful data quality improvement programme and its title provides a big clue as to what I see as the fourth pillar. More on this later.
1. The change management angle
Again, as with virtually all IT projects, the aim of a data quality initiative is to drive different behaviours. This means that change management skills are just as important in these types projects as in the business intelligence work that they complement. This is a factor to consider when taking decisions about who takes the lead in looking to improve data quality; who amongst the available resources have established and honed change management skills? The best IT departments will have a number of individuals who fit this bill, if not-IT has them as well, then the organisation is spoilt for choice.
2. The pan-organisational angle
Elsewhere I have argued that BI adds greatest value when it is all-pervasive. The same observations apply to data quality. If we assume that an organisation has a number of divisions, each with their own systems (due to the nature of their business and maybe also history), but also maybe sharing some enterprise applications. While it would undeniably be beneficial for Division A to get their customer files in order, it would be of even greater value if all divisions did this at the same time and with a consistent purpose. This would allow the dealings of Customer X across all parts of the business to be calculated and analysed. It could also drive cross-selling opportunities in particular market segments.
While it is likely that a number of corporate staff of different sorts will have a very good understanding about the high-level operations of each of the divisions, it is at least probable that only IT staff (specifically those engaged in collating detailed data from each division for BI purposes) will have an in-depth understanding of how transactions and master data are stored in different ways across the enterprise. This knowledge is a by-product of running a best practice BI project and the collateral intellectual property built up can be of substantial business value.
3. The BI angle
It was this area that formed the backbone of the earlier data quality article that I referenced above. My thesis was that you could turn the good data quality => good BI relationship on its head and use the BI tool to drive data quality improvements. The key here was not to sanitise data problems, but instead to expose them, also leveraging standard BI functionality like drill through to allow people to identify what was causing an issue.
One of the most pernicious data quality issues is of the valid, but wrong entry. For example a transaction is allocated a category code of X, which is valid, but the business event demands the value Y. Sometimes it is possible to guard against this eventuality by business rules, e.g. Product A can only be sold by Business Unit W, but this will not be possible for all such data. A variant of this issue is data being entered in the wrong field. Having spent a while in the Insurance industry, it was not atypical for a policy number to be entered as a claim value for example. Sometimes there is no easy systematic way to detect this type of occurrence, but exposing issues in a well-designed BI system is one way of noticing odd figures and then – crucially – being able to determine what is causing them.
4. The IT character angle
I was searching round for a way to put this nicely and then realised that Jim Harris had done the job for me in naming his excellent Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality blog (OCDQ Blog). I’m an IT person, I may have general management experience and a reasonable understanding of many parts of business, but I remain essentially an IT person. Before that, I was a Mathematician. People in both of those lines of work tend to have a certain reputation; to put it positively, the ability to focus extremely hard on something for long periods is a common characteristic.
Aside: for the avoidance of doubt, as I pointed out in Pigeonholing – A tragedy, the fact that someone is good at the details does not necessarily preclude them from also excelling at seeing the big picture – in fact without a grasp on the details the danger of painting a Daliesque big picture is perhaps all too real!
Improving data quality is one of the areas where this personality trait pays dividends. I’m sure that there are some marketing people out there who have relentless attention to detail and whose middle name is “thoroughness”, however I suspect there are rather less of them than among the ranks of my IT colleagues. While leadership from the pertinent parts of not-IT is very important, a lot of the hard yards are going to be done by IT people; therefore it makes sense if they have a degree of accountability in this area.
Much like most business projects, improving data quality is going to require a cross-functional approach to achieve its goals. While you often hear the platitudinous statement that “the business must be responsible for the quality of its own data”, this ostensible truism hides the fact that one of the best ways for not-IT to improve the quality of an organisation’s data is to get IT heavily involved in all aspects of this work.
IT for its part can leverage both its role as one of the supra-business unit departments and its knowledge of how business transactions are recorded and move from one system to another to become an effective champion of data quality.
The bad news is that only twenty-seven percent of respondents [to a survey of CIOs carried out by IDG Research] who use a BI solution report being extremely successful or very successful with it. Forty-five percent report being only somewhat successful, while seventeen percent say that they are not very, or not at all successful.
I’m not sure what happened to the other 11% of respondents, maybe they just hung up the ‘phone.
Blaming the users
Having stated that “BI has, too often, not lived up to expectations”, the paper goes on to list some reasons why. First on the list is the following:
lack of adoption by users
You don’t have to be Einstein to realise that this is the result of a BI project failing, not the cause of it. The equivalent in athletics terms would be to say that you came last in the race because everyone else was faster than you. While obviously true this observation doesn’t help a lot with how to do better next time.
Of course hidden in the comment is the plaintive whine heard emanating from many an unsuccessful project (or indeed product launch), “the problem is the users”. This is arrant nonsense, returning to the start of article if you write a book that is panned by the critics and not bought by the public, then there is at least some chance that the fault lies with you and not them. It is the job of the IT professional to know their users, understand their needs and provide systems that cause delight, not disillusion.
A more interesting observation later on is:
Many BI initiatives falter because the analytics capabilities that are at the core of the system aren’t even used. Many users simply pull data from the warehouse and dump it in a spreadsheet. […] A true BI implementation includes both reporting and analytics. CIOs indicate a much higher success rate with BI when users embrace both.
I think that there is some truth in this. Some of the BI failures I have seen have gone to the bother of building a warehouse only to front it with flat reports that are only marginally better than what they replaced.
In my career I have taken the opposite approach. While many people warn against analysis paralysis, I have deployed OLAP tools to all users, with fixed format reports de-emphasised, or used mostly for external purposes. This does mean that more effort needs to be put into training, but this is necessary anyway if you want your BI system to be an agent of change (and why else would you be building one if this is not the case?). I cover my general approach to driving user adoption in a series of three articles as follows:
This approach was very successful and we achieved user adoption of 92% – i.e. of those people who attended training, 92% remained active users (defined as using the BI system on average for at least two extended periods each week). We actually felt that the OLAP tools we were implementing were pretty intuitive and easy-to-use and so focussed mostly on how to use them in specific business scenarios. Overall we felt that training was 25% technical and 75% business-related.
Aiming for simplicity
Related to the above point, the EMC2 article also mentions the following reason for failure:
limited functionality/hard to use
This seems a little oxymoronic as normally it is depth of functionality that confuses people. I think I would disagree with both parts of this point. Out of the box, most BI tools have rich functionality and a reasonably intuitive to use. In one response to the LinkedIn.com thread I said the following:
I have been successful in getting users […] weaned […] off ad hoc reports, it wasn’t an easy process and required persistence and selling, but this paid off. […] It is illuminating seeing business managers (some of whom still dictate memos for their secretaries to type) “slicing and dicing”, drilling down/through and generally interacting away merrily and stating that if all IT was this easy to use and informative, they might have taken to it earlier.
My view here is that you can make the tool as complicated or a simple as you choose. Going back to my first warehouse project, in our somewhat naive early attempts at prototype cubes, we had all available dimensions and all available measures included. I think our idea is that the users could help us sift out the ones that were most important. Instead this approach caused the negative reactions that the article refers to.
We subsequently adopted a rule of having as few dimensions and measures as possible in a cube, without compromising the business need that the cube was trying to address. The second part of this rule was that every cube had to be focussed on answering business questions in at least one area and at most two.
Rather than having a small number of monolithic cubes, we went with the option of a slightly larger number of significantly clearer and simpler ones. I think that this was a factor in our success in driving business adoption.
Should the fact that some BI projects fail dissuade you from BI?
I won’t attempt to dissect the rest of the article, the areas that I comment on above are representative. There are some good points and some less good ones – just like any article, including of course my own. Take a look yourself and see whether the findings and recommendations chime with your own experience of success and failure. What I did want to do was to return to the context of the aphorism that starts this post.
The thesis of the original LinkedIn.com post was that because a significant number of organisations had failed to get enormous benefit from BI, BI itself was therefore somehow flawed. I think this is wrong-headed reasoning. If 1,000 people write a book, how many are likely to become acknowledged as great authors? How many are likely to have the lesser accolade of commercial success? The answer in both cases is “not many”. This is because writing well is a very difficult thing to do (I prove this myself with every blog post!). Not everyone who tries it will be successful. BI is also difficult to do well and a major cause of problems is underestimating this difficulty.
Maybe this is too recherché and example, and maybe if the chances of success with BI are as slim as winning the Purlitzer Prize then it is not worth the effort. So I’ll instead I’ll resort to my favourite area of the sporting analogy. Let’s take the same 1,000 people and say that they all take up a new sport – it is mostly immaterial what the sport is, let’s say tennis. How many of them will go on to become proficient in it? By this I don’t mean that they are the next Roger Federer, just that they become competent enough to serve adequately, master the dark arts of the backhand and sustain a few rallies. My feeling is that the stats would look something like those in the EMC2 report.
Is the prize worth it?
Given this, does it mean that some companies are just not cut out for BI and should ignore the area? Well the answer is “it depends”. Going back to tennis, if some one wants to be good, and has the determination to succeed, that is a necessary (though sadly not sufficient) condition. What may drive such a person on is the objective of achieving a goal, or maybe the pleasure of being able to perform at a certain level.
Focussing on business outcomes, I believe that BI can deliver substantial benefits. In fact I have argued elsewhere that BI can have the greatest payback of any IT project. Of course this presupposes that the BI project is done well. If the prize is potentially that great then maybe – like the aspiring tennis player who wants to become better – trying again makes sense. In recent recruitment I have heard frequent mention of organisations that were building their second warehouse as they didn’t get the first one quite right.
However the comparison with tennis breaks down in that business is a team game. If an organisation as a whole has struggled with BI, then this is not a question of simply accepting your genetic limitations. Companies can “evolve” capabilities by hiring people who have been successful in a field. They can also get benefit from targeted consultancy from practitioners who have a track record of success; this can help them to build an internal capability. This is an approach that I took advantage of myself in the initial six months of my first BI project [note: although I often seem to get mistaken for a BI consultant, I am not touting for business here!].
This means that if a company’s BI architecture is currently the equivalent of a Jeffrey Archer novel, it is still possible to transform it into Heart of Darkness. It will not be easy and will take time and effort, but there are people out there who have been successful and can act as guides.
In closing I should also mention that, if you take appropriate precautions, it is far from inevitable that the end of a BI journey will be finding your own version of Kurtz!
Conspectus is a report, published by The National Computing Centre (NCC) Ltd, which keeps UK decision makers abreast of the key issues in the IT marketplace. It is a regular publication available online as a PDF. Each subject is published annually to ensure its continuing relevance and accuracy. Conspectus has a UK registered readership of 22,500.
This is a proverb with quite some history to it. Indeed its lineage has been traced to 13th Century France in: mauvés ovriers ne trovera ja bon hostill (les mauvais ouvriers ne trouveront jamais un bon outil being a rendition in more contemporary French). To me this timeless observation is applicable to present-day Business Intelligence projects. Browsing through on-line forums, it is all too typical to see discussions that start “What is the best BI software available on the market?”, “Who are the leaders in SaaS BI?” and (rather poignantly in my opinion) “Please help me to pick the best technology for a dashboard.” I feel that these are all rather missing the point. Before I explain why, I am going to offer another of my sporting analogies, which I believe is pertinent. Indeed sporting performace is an area to which the aphorism appearing in the title is frequently applied.
If you would like to skip the sporting analogy and cut to the chase, please click here.
The importance of having the right shoes
Rock climbing is a sport that certainly has its share of machismo; any climbing magazine or web-site will feature images of testosterone-infused youths whose improbable physiques (often displayed to full advantage by the de rigueur absence of any torso-encumbering clothing) propel them to the top of equally improbable climbs.
Given this, many commentators have noted the irony of climbing being conducted by people wearing the equivalent of rubber-covered ballet slippers. The fact that one of the most iconic rock climbing shoes of all time was a fetching shade of pink merely adds piquancy to this observation. Examples of these, the classic FiveTen Anasazi Lace-ups, are featured in the following photo of top British climber, Steve McClure (yes it is the right way up).
When I started rock climbing, my first pair of shoes were Zephyrs from Spanish climbing firm Boreal. They looked something like this:
Although it might not be apparent from the above image, these are intended to be comfortable shoes. Ones to be worn by more experienced climbers on long mountain days, or suitable for beginners, like myself at the time, on shorter climbs. Although not exactly cheap, they are not prohibitively expensive and the rubber on the soles is quite hard-wearing as well.
The Zephyrs worked well for me, but inevitably over time you begin to notice the shoes worn by better climbers at the crag or at the wall. You also cannot fail to miss the much sexier shoes worn by professional climbers in films, climbing magazine articles and (no coincidence here) advertisements. These other shoes also cost more (again no coincidence) and promise better performance. When you are looking to get better at something, it is tempting to take any advantage that you can get. Also, perhaps especially when you are looking to break into a new area, there is some pressure to conform, to look like the “in-crowd”, maybe even simply to distance yourself from the beginner that you were only a few months previously.
This is very shallow behaviour of course, but it is also the rock on which the advertising industry is founded. I wanted to get better as a climber, but would have to admit that other, less noble, motives also drove me to wanting to purchase new rock shoes.
The Galileos shown above are made by US company FiveTen and are representative of the type of shoes that I have worn for most my climbing career. FiveTen shoes have been worn by many top climbers over the years (though there have recently been some quite high-profile defections to start-up brand Evolv, who can never seem to decide whether to append a final ‘e’ to their name or not).
Amongst other things, FiveTens are noted for the stickiness of their rubber, which is provided by an organisation called Stealth Rubber and appears on no other rock climbing shoes. Generally the greater the adhesion between your foot and the rock, the greater the force that you can bring to bear on it to drive yourself upwards. Also it helps to have confidence that your foot has a good chance of staying in place, no matter how glassy the rock may be (and no matter how long the fall may be should this not happen). I have worn FiveTen shoes on all of my hardest climbs (none of which have actually been very hard in the grand scheme of things sad to say).
Nevertheless, with what I admit was rather a sense of guilt, I have recently embarked on a dalliance with another rock shoe manufacturer, La Sportiva of Italy. The Sportiva Solutions which are shown above are both the most expensive rock shoes I have ever owned and the most technical. If NASA made a rock shoe, they would probably not be a million miles away from the Solutions. The radical nature of their design can perhaps best be appreciated in three dimensions and you can do this by clicking on the above image.
The Solutions are very, very good rock shoes. I recently had the opportunity to carry out a before and after comparison on the following climb, A Miller’s Tale:
My partner, who appears in the photo (incidentally sporting FiveTen shoes), climbed this on her second go. By contrast, I had many fruitless attempts wearing my own pair of FiveTens (that, to be fair to FiveTen, were much less technical than the Galileo’s above and were also probably past the end of their useful life). I frequently found my feet skittering off of the highly polished limestone, which resulted in me rapidly returning to terra firma.
A couple of weeks later, equipped with my shiny new Sportivas, my feet did not slip once. Of course the perfect end to this story would have been to say that I then climbed the problem (for an explanation of why some types of climbs are called problems see my earlier article Perseverance). Sadly, though I made much more progress during my second session, I need to go back to finally tick it off of my list.
So here surely is an example of the tool making a difference, or is it? My partner had climbed A Miller’s Tale quite happily without having the advantage of my new footwear. She is 5’3″ (160cm) compared to my 5’11” (180cm) and the taller you are the easier it is to reach the next hold. Strength is a factor in climbing and I am also stronger in absolute terms than she is. The reason that she succeeded where I failed is simply that she is a better climber than I am. It is an oft-repeated truism in the climbing world that many females have better techniques than men. This, together with the “unfair” advantage of smaller fingers, is the excuse often offered by muscle-bound men who fail to complete a climb that a female then dances her way up. However in my partner’s case, she is also very strong, with her power-to-weight ratio being the key factor. You don’t need to lift massive weights in climbing, just your own body.
So I didn’t really need better rock shoes to prevent my feet from slipping. If I got my body into a better balanced position, then this would have had the same impact. Equally, if my abdominal muscles were stronger, I could have squeezed my feet harder onto the rock, increasing their adhesion (this type of strength, known as core strength for obvious reasons, is crucial to progressing in many types of climbing). What the Solutions did was not to make me a better climber, but to make up for some of my inadequacies. In this way, by allowing me the luxury of not focussing on increasing my strength or improving my technique, you could even argue that they might be bad for my climbing in the long run. I probably protest too much in this last comment, but hopefully the reader can appreciate the point that I am trying to make.
In order to become a better climber I need to do lots of things. I need to strengthen the tendons in my fingers (or at least in nine of them as I ruptured the tendon in my right ring finger playing rugby years ago) so that I can hold on to smaller edges and grasp larger ones for longer. I need to develop my abdominal muscles to hold me onto the rock face better and put more pressure on my feet; particularly when the climb is overhanging. I need to build up muscles in my back, shoulders and arms to be able to move more assuredly between holds that are widely spaced. I must work on my endurance, so that I do not fail climbs because I am worn out by a long series of lower moves. Finally I need to improve my technique: making my footwork more precise; paying more attention to the shape of my body and how this affects my centre of gravity and the purchase I have on holds; getting more comfortable with the tricks of the trade such as heel- and toe-hooks; learning when to be aggressive in my climbing and when to be slow and deliberate; and finally better visualising how my body fits against the rock and the best way to flow economically from one position to the next.
If I can get better in all of these areas, then maybe I will have earned my new technical rock shoes and I will be able to take advantage of the benefits that they offer. Having the right shoes can undoubtedly improve your climbing, but it is no substitute for focussing on the long list in the previous paragraph. There is no real short-cut to becoming a better climber, it just takes an awful lot of work.
A final thing to add in this section is that the Solutions offer advantages to the climber on certain types of climbs. On any overhanging, pocketed rock, they are brilliant. But the way that they shape your foot into a down-turned claw would be a positive disadvantage when trying to pad up a slab. In this second scenario, something like my worn out FiveTens (now sadly consigned to the rubbish tip) would be the tool of choice. It is important to realise that the right tool is often dictated by the task in hand and one that excels in area A may be an also-ran in area B.
Lest it be thought that the above manufacturers play only in narrow niches, I should explain that each of Boreal, FiveTen and La Sportiva produce a wide range of rock shoes catering to virtuially every type of climber from the neophyte to the world’s best.
If you think that the pound dollar rates are rather strange in the above exhibits, then a few things are at play. Some are genuine differences, but others are because they are historical rates. for example, I struggled to find a US web-site that still sells Boreal Zephyrs.
If you are interested in finding out more about my adventures in rock climbing, then take a look at my partner’s blog.
The role of technology in Business Intelligence
I hope that I have established that at least in the world of rock climbing, the technology that you have at your disposal is only one of many factors necessary for success; indeed it is some way from being the most important factor.
Having really poor, or worn out, rock shoes can dent your confidence and even get you into bad habits (such as not using your feet enough). Having really good rock shoes can bring some incremental benefits, but these are not as great as those to be gained by training and experience. Most of the technologically-related benefits will be realised by having reasonably good and reasonably new shoes.
While the level of a professional rock climber’s performance will be undoubtedly be improved by using the best equipment available, a bad climber with $150 rock shoes will still be a bad climber (note this is not intended to be a self-referential comment).
Determine what information is necessary to drive key business decisions.
Understand the various data sources that are available and how they relate to each other.
Transform the data to meet the information needs.
Manage the embedding of BI in the corporate culture.
Obviously good BI technology has a role to play across all of these areas, but it is not the primary concern in any of them. Let us consider what is often one of the most difficult areas to get right, embedding BI in an organisation’s DNA. What is the role of the BI tool here?
Well if you want people to actually use the BI system, it helps if the way that the BI technology operates is not a hindrance to this. Ideally the ease-of-use and intuitiveness of the BI technology deployed should be a plus point for you. However, if you have the ultimate in BI technology, but your BI system does not highlight areas that business people are interested in, does not provide information that influences actual decision-making, or contains numbers that are inaccurate, out-of-date, or unreconciled, then it will not be used. I put this a little more succinctly in a recent article: Using multiple business intelligence tools in an implementation – Part II (an inspired title I realise), which I finished by saying:
If your systems do not have credibility with your users, then all is already lost and no amount of flashy functionality will save you.
Similar points can be made about all of the other pillars. Great BI technology should be the icing on your BI cake, not one of the main ingredients.
The historical perspective
Ajay Ohri from the DecisionStats web-site recently interviewed me in some depth about a range of issues. He specifically asked me about what differentiated the various BI tools and I reproduce my reply here:
The really important question in BI is not which tool is best, but how to make BI projects successful. While many an unsuccessful BI manager may blame the tool or its vendor, this is not where the real issues lie. I firmly believe that successful BI rests on four mutually reinforcing pillars: understand the questions the business needs to answer, understand the data available, transform the data to meet the business needs and embed the use of BI in the organisation’s culture. If you get these things right then you can be successful with almost any of the excellent BI tools available in the marketplace. If you get any one of them wrong, then using the paragon of BI tools is not going to offer you salvation.
I think about BI tools in the same way as I do the car market. Not so many years ago there were major differences between manufacturers. The Japanese offered ultimate reliability, but maybe didn’t often engage the spirit. The Germans prided themselves on engineering excellence, slanted either in the direction of performance or luxury, but were not quite as dependable as the Japanese. The Italians offered out-and-out romance and theatre, with mechanical integrity an afterthought. The French seemed to think that bizarrely shaped cars with wheels as thin as dinner plates were the way forward, but at least they were distinctive. The Swedes majored on a mixture of safety and aerospace cachet, but sometimes struggled to shift their image of being boring. The Americans were still in the middle of their love affair with the large and the rugged, at the expense of convenience and value-for-money. Stereotypically, my fellow-countrymen majored on agricultural charm, or wooden-panelled nostalgia, but struggled with the demands of electronics.
Nowadays, the quality and reliability of cars are much closer to each other. Most manufacturers have products with similar features and performance and economy ratings. If we take financial issues to one side, differences are more likely to related to design, or how people perceive a brand. Today the quality of a Ford is not far behind that of a Toyota. The styling of a Honda can be as dramatic as an Alfa Romeo. Lexus and Audi are playing in areas previously the preserve of BMW and Mercedes and so on. To me this is also where the market for BI tools is at present. It is relatively mature and the differences between product sets are less than before.
Of course this doesn’t mean that the BI field will not be shaken up by some new technology or approach (in-memory BI or SaaS come to mind). This would be the equivalent of the impact that the first hybrid cars had on the auto market. However, from the point of view of implementations, most BI tools will do at least an adequate job and picking one should not be your primary concern in a BI project.
If you are interested, you can read the full interview here.
The current reality
As my comments to Ajay suggest, maybe in past times there were greater differences between BI vendors and the tools that they supplied. One benefit of the massive consolidation that has occurred in recent years is that the five biggest players: IBM/Cognos, Oracle/Hyperion, SAP/BusinessObjects, Microsoft and (the as yet still independent) SAS all have product portfolios that are both wide and deep. If there is something that you want your BI tool to do, it is likely that any of these organisations can provide you with the software; assuming that your wallet allows it. Both the functionality and scope of offerings from smaller vendors operating in the BI arena have also increased greatly in recent times. Finding a technology that fits your specific needs for functionality, ease-of-use, scalability and reliability should not be a problem.
This general landscape is one against which it is interesting to view the recent acquisition of business analytics firm SPSS by IBM. According to Reuters, IBM’s motivations are as follows:
IBM plans to buy business analytics company SPSS Inc for $1.2 billion in cash to better compete with Oracle Corp and SAP AG in the growing field of business intelligence
As an aside, should both Microsoft and SAS be worried that they are omitted from this list?
Whatever the corporate logic for IBM, to me this is simply more evidence that BI technology is becoming a utility (it should however be noted that this is not the same as BI itself becoming a utility). I believe that this trend will lead to a greater focus on the use of BI technology as part of broad-based BI programmes that drive business value. Though BI has the potential of releasing massive benefits for organisations, the track record has been somewhat patchy. Hopefully as people start to worry less about BI technology and more about the factors that really drive success in BI programmes, this will begin to change.
As with any technical innovation over the centuries, it is only when the technology itself becomes invisible that the real benefits flow.
Standard note: You need to be a member of both LinkedIn.com and the group mentioned to view the discussions.
The case for a CBIO
I won’t republish all of John’s initial post, but for those who cannot access the thread these are the essential points that he raised:
There is an ever-increasing need for more and better information in organisations
Increasingly Business Intelligence is seen as a major source of competitive advantage
A CBIO would bring focus and (more importantly) accountability to this area
The CBIO should report directly to the CEO, with strong relations with the rest of the executive team
The CBIO’s team would be a hybrid business / technical one (as I strongly believe the best BI teams should be)
This team should also be at the forefront of driving change, based on the metrics that it generates
Now obviously creating a senior role with a portfolio spanning BI and change is going to be music that falls sweetly on my ears. I did however attempt to be objective in my response, which I reproduce in full below:
As someone who is (primarily) a BI professional, then of course my response could be viewed as entirely self-serving. Nevertheless, I’ll offer my thoughts.
In the BI programmes that I have run, I have had reporting lines into people such as the CIO, CFO or sometimes a combined IT / Operations lead. However (and I think that this is a big however), I have always had programme accountability to the CEO and have always had the entire senior leadership team (business and service departments) as my stakeholders. Generally my direction has come more from these dotted lines than from the solid ones – as you would hope would be the case in any customer-centric IT area.
I have run lots of different IT projects over the years. Things such as: building accounting, purchasing and sales systems; configuring and implementing ERP systems; building front-end systems for underwriters, marketing and executive teams; and so on. Given this background, there is definitely something about BI that makes it different.
Any IT system must be aligned to its users’ needs, that much is obvious. However with BI it goes a long way beyond alignment. In a very real sense, BI systems need to be the business. They are not there to facilitate business transactions, they are there to monitor the heartbeat of the organisation, to help it navigate the best way forward, to get early warning of problems, to check the efficacy of strategies and provide key input to developing them.
In short a good BI system should be focussed on precisely the things that the senior leadership team is focussed on, and in particular what the CEO is focussed on. In order to achieve this you need to understand what makes the business tick and you need to move very close to it. This proximity, coupled with the fact that good BI should drip business value means that I have often felt closer to the overall business leadership team than the IT team.
Please don’t misunderstand my point here. I have been an IT person for 20 years and I am not saying that BI should not be fully integrated with the overall IT strategy – indeed in my book it should be central to it as a major function of all IT systems is to gather information (as well as to support transactions and facilitate interactions with customers). However, there is something of a sense in which BI straddles the IT and business arenas (arenas that I have long argued should be much less distinct from each other than they are in many organisations).
The potentially massive impact of BI, the fact that it speaks the language of business leaders, the need for it to be aligned with driving cultural change and that the fact that the skills required for success in BI are slightly different for those necessary in normal IT projects all argue that something like a CBIO position is maybe not such a bad idea.
Indeed I have begun to see quite a few BI roles that are part of change directorates, or the office of the CEO or CFO. There are also some stand-alone BI roles out there, reporting directing to the board. Clearly there will always be a strong interaction with IT, but perhaps you have detected an emerging trend.
I suppose a shorter version of the above would run something like: my de facto reporting line in BI programmes has always been into the CEO and senior management team, so why not recognise this by making it a de jura reporting line.
BI is a weird combination of being both a specialist and generalist area. Generalist in needing to play a major role in running all aspects of the business, specialist in the techniques and technologies that are key to achieving this.
Over to the jury
Maybe the idea of a CBIO is one whose time has come. I would be interested in people’s views on this.