Business Intelligence Competency Centres

Introduction

The subject of this article ought to be reasonably evident from its title. However there is perhaps some room for misinterpretation around even this. Despite the recent furore about definitions, most reasonable people should be comfortable with a definition of business intelligence. My take on this is that BI is simply using information to drive better business decisions. In this definition, the active verb “drive” and the subject “business decisions” are the key elements; something that is often forgotten in a rush for technological fripperies.
 
 
The central issue

Having hopefully addressed of the “BI” piece of the BICC acronym, let’s focus on the “CC” part. I’ll do this in reverse order, first of all considering what is meant by “centre”. As ever I will first refer to my trusted Oxford English Dictionary for help. In a discipline, such as IT, which is often accused of mangling language and even occasionally using it to obscure more than to clarify, a back-to-basics approach to words can sometimes yield unexpected insights.

  centre / séntər / n. & v. (US center) 3 a a place or group of buildings forming a central point in a district, city, etc., or a main area for an activity (shopping centre, town centre).
(O.E.D.)
 

Ignoring the rather inexcusable use of the derived adjective “central” in the definition of the noun “centre”, then it is probably the “main area for an activity” sense that is meant to be conveyed in the final “C” of BICC. However, there is also perhaps some illumination to be had in considering another meaning of the word:

Centre of a Sphere

  n. 1 a the middle point, esp. of a line, circle or sphere, equidistant from the ends, or from any point on the circumference or surface.
(O.E.D.)
 

As well as appealing to the mathematician in me, this meaning gives the sense that a BICC is physically central geographically, or metaphorically central with respect to business units. Of course this doesn’t meant than a BICC needs to be at the precise centre of gravity of an organisation, with each branch contributing a “weight” calculated by its number of staff, or revenue; but it does suggest that the competency centre is located at a specific point, not dispersed through the organisation.

Of course, not all organisations have multiple locations. The simplest may not have multiple business units either. However, there is a sense by which “centre” means that a BICC should straddle whatever diversity there is an organisation. If it is in multiple countries, then the BICC will be located in one of these, but serve the needs of the others. If a company has several different divisions, or business units, or product streams; then again the BICC should be a discrete area that supports all of them. Often what will make most sense is for the BICC to be located within an organisation’s Head Office function. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. Head Office similarly straddles geographies and business units and so is presumably located in a place that makes sense to do this from (maybe in an organisation’s major market, certainly close to a transport hub if the organisation is multinational, and so on).
  2. If a BICC is to properly fulfil the first two letters of its abbreviation, then it will help if it is collocated with business decision-makers. Head Office is one place than many of these are found, including generally the CEO, the CFO, the Head of Marketing and Business Unit Managers. Of course key decision makers will also be spread throughout the organisation (think of Regional and Country Managers), but it is not possible to physically collocate with all of these.
  3. Another key manager who is hopefully located in Head Office is the CIO (though this is dispiritingly not always the case, with some CIOs confined to IT ghettos, far from the rest of the executive team and with a corresponding level of influence). Whilst business issues are pre-eminent in BI, of course there is a major technological dimension and a need to collaborate closely with those charged with running the organisation’s IT infrastructure and those responsible for care and feeding of source data systems.
  4. If a BI system is to truly achieve its potential, then it must become all pervasive; including a wide range of information from profitability, to sales, to human resources statistics, to expense numbers. This means that it needs to sit at the centre of a web of different systems: ERP, CRM, line of business systems, HR systems etc. Often the most convenient place to do this from will be Head Office.

Thusfar, I haven’t commented on the business benefits of a BICC. Instead I have confined myself to explaining what people mean by the second “C” in the name and why this might be convenient. Rather than making this an even longer piece, I am going to cover both the benefits and disadvantages of a BICC in a follow-on article. Instead let’s now move on to considering the first “C”: Competency.
 
 
Compos centris

Returning to our initial theme of generating insights via an examination of the meaning of words in a non-IT context, let’s start with another dictionary definition:

Motar board

  competence /kómpit’nss/ n. (also competency /kómpitənsi/) 1 (often foll. by for, or to + infin.) ability; the state of being competent.

and given the recursive reliance of the above on the definition of competent…
  competent /kómpit’nt/ adj. 1 a (usu. foll. by to + infin.) properly qualified or skilled (not competent to drive); adequately capable, satisfactory. b effective (a competent bastman*).
(O.E.D.)
 

* People who are not fully conversant with the mysteries of cricket may substitute “batter” here.

To me the important thing to highlight here is that, while it is to be hoped that a BICC will continue to become more competent once it is up and running, in order to successfully establish such a centre, a high degree of existing competence is a prerequisite. It is not enough to simply designate some floor space and allocate a number of people to your BICC, what you need is at least a core of seasoned professionals who have experience of delivering transformational information and know how to set about doing it.

There are many skills that will be necessary in such a group. These match the four main pillars of a BI implementation (I cover these in more depth in several places on the blog, including BI implementations are like icebergs and the middle section of Is outsourcing business intelligence a good idea?):

  1. Understand the important business decisions and what figures are necessary to support these.
  2. Understand the data available in the organisation, how it relates to other data and to business decisions.
  3. Transform the data to provide information answering business questions.
  4. Focus on embedding the use of information in the corporate DNA.

So a successful BICC must include: people with strong analytical skills and an understanding of general business practices; high-calibre designers; reliable and conscientious ETL and general programmers; experts in the care, feeding and design of databases; excellent quality assurance professionals; resource conversant with both whatever front-end tools you are using to deliver information and general web programming; staff with skills in technical project management; people who can both design and deliver training programmes; help desk personnel; and last, but by no means least, change managers.

Of course if your BI project is big enough, then you may be able to afford to have people dedicated to each of these roles. If resources are tighter (and where is this not the case nowadays?) then it is better to have people who can wear more than one hat: business analysts who can also design; BI programmers who will also take support calls; project managers who will also run training classes; and so on. This approach saves money and also helps to deal with the inevitable peaks and troughs of resource requirements at different stages in a project. I would recommend setting things up this way (or looking to stretch your people’s abilities into new areas) even if you have the luxury of a budget that would allow a more discrete approach. The challenge of course is going to be finding and retaining such multi-faceted staff.

Also, it hopefully goes without saying that BI is a very business-focussed area and some BICCs will explicitly include business people in them. Even if you do not go this far, then the BICC will have to form a strong partnership with key business stakeholders, often spread across multiple territories. The skill to manage this effectively is in itself a major requirement of the leading personnel of the centre.

Given all of the above, the best way to staff a BICC is with members of a team who have already been successful with a BI project within your organisation; maybe one that was confined to a given geographic region or business unit. If you have no such team, then starting with a BICC is probably a bridge too far. Instead my recommendation would be to build up some competency via a smaller BI project. Alternatively, if you have more than one successful BI team (and, despite the manifold difficulties in getting BI right, such things are not entirely unheard of) then maybe blending these together makes sense. This is unless there is some overriding reason not to (e.g. vastly different team cultures or methodologies. In this case, picking a “winner” may be a better course of action.

Such a team will already have the skills outlined above in abundance (else they could never have been successful). It is also likely that whatever information was needed in their region or business unit will be at least part of what is needed at the broader level of a BICC. Given that there are many examples of BI projects not delivering or consuming vastly more resource than anticipated, then leveraging those exceptional people who have managed to swim against this tide is eminently sensible. Such battle-hardened professionals will know what pitfalls to avoid, which areas are most important to concentrate on and can use their existing products to advertise the benefits of a wider system. If you have such people at the core of your BICC, then it will be easier to integrate new joiners and quickly shepherd them up the learning curve (something that can be particularly long in BI due to the many different aspects of the work).

Of course having been successful in one business unit or region is not enough to guarantee success on a larger scale. I spoke about some of the challenges of doing this in an earlier article, Developing an international BI strategy. Another issue that is likely to raise its head is the political dimension, in particular where different business units or regions already have a management information strategy at some stage of development. This is another area that I will also cover in more detail in a forthcoming piece.
 
 
Conclusions

It seems that simply musing on the normal meanings of the words “competency” and “centre” has led us into some useful discussions. As mentioned above, at least two other blog postings will expand upon areas that have been highlighted in this piece. For now what I believe we have learned so far is:

  • BICCs should (by definition) straddle multiple geographies and/or business units.
  • There are sound reasons for collocating the BICC with Head Office.
  • There is need for a wide range of skills in your BICC, both business-focussed and technical.
  • At least the core of your BICC should be made up of competent (and experienced) BI professionals .

More thoughts on the benefits and disadvantages of business intelligence competency centres and also the politcs that they have to negotiate will appear on this blog in future weeks.
 

“Why do CFOs and CEOs hate IT? – ERP” – Thomas Wailgum at CIO.com

Thomas Wailgum at CIO.com

This is my second article in response to pieces by Thomas Wailgum at CIO.com (you can read the first one here). In Thomas’ latest piece, entitled Why CFOs and CEOs Hate IT: ERP, he touches on an area of which I have lengthy experience, ERP.

I spent the first eight years of my career working for a a software house, whose central product was in what we now call the ERP space. The big boys at Oracle Financials (then without PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards in-train) were one of our main rivals and I had the pleasure of being involved in several bids where the little guys prevailed against their more renowned competition.

Later in my career, I was a player in a global selection process involving Oracle, PeopleSoft (then a separate company) and SAP and in laying the foundations for a US/European PeopleSoft implementation. Many years later again, after I had recorded a number of successes in another of my core areas, business intelligence, I was asked to add Financial IT once more to my portfolio. In this capacity, I oversaw the implementation of (by this time) Oracle PeopleSoft Financials in Denmark, Italy and then Australia, Hong Kong, Labuan and Singapore.

So, in one way or another, ERP and I have been around the block a few times. Given this, I could identify with some of Thomas’ observations. Many of these can be summed up in the phrase “an ERP system is for life, not just for Christmas.” Here are a few of Thomas’ thoughts:

A typical company in the CFO survey will spend an average of $1.2 million each year (each year!) to maintain, modify and update its ERP system.

ERP systems have become a noose around companies’ necks which tighten as the business changes every year, each customization gets made to the system and costs continue to spiral upward.

In some ways, ERP implementation is just like any other IT project and is difficult to get right for exactly the same reasons. But, as Thomas points out, some things that make ERP stand out are the massive initial outlays, the continuing cost of modifying what you originally thought you needed and the sheer size and complexity of most modern ERP systems.

You can think of your average ERP system from one of the large vendors as analogous to Microsoft Word. Because Word has to appeal to a lot of different users, with different needs and specialisms, it is chock-full of every single feature that anyone could ever need. However, no single person ever uses more than a fraction of these. I think of myself as a reasonably advanced Word user, but I would bet that I utilise no more than 10% of its capabilities. All of the functionality can make it tough for an entry-level user to employ Word in a basic way to do basic things (or if we are talking about Word 2007, it makes it tough for even an expert user to figure out how to do stuff). The same criticism can be applied to ERP systems. Because they include so much functionality for different companies in different industries, it can sometimes be difficult to configure them to do something as simple as entering and paying an invoice. Difficult that is without an army of consultants.

The way to avoid complexities and to get ERP implemented on time and budget is to ignore its broader capabilities and deploy as plain vanilla a version as you can get away with. Flexibility and the ability to customise might be very seductive at sales time, but they are the worst enemy of implementation and are certain to chew up resource, time and money. Instead the secret is to focus on the ways in which Finance in your organisation is the same as it most other organisations. Once you have this sorted out and a basically successful system in place, you can then think about bells and whistles. Of course by this time, you will probably be focused on upgrading to the latest version of your ERP system, but let’s put this unpleasant thought to one side for the purposes of this discussion.

But this begs another question, which Thomas covers more eloquently that I could. Plain vanilla ERP implementations, where you essentially adapt what your organisation does to the system’s standard functionality, mean that:

[…] employees who actually have to use the ERP system day in, day out will not only dislike the fact that you’re changing their technology interface, but now you’re going to allow the technology system to dictate to them how they should perform their job, with the new business processes.

Hercules and the Hydra - Antonio del Pollaiolo

However, even if we can suppress this second inconvenient truth about ERP, a further one arises – the area is indeed hydra-like. If the best practice for ERP implementations is to customise them as little as possible – shortening projects, reducing costs and simplifying upgrades – then why is there such a large price tag for all of the bells and whistles that it is impractical to actually use?

As Mr Wailgum says in closing:

But, perhaps, [CEOs and CFOs] have been making these decisions without knowing all the facts about the long-term costs associated with ERP systems, that the upfront “sticker price” is almost meaningless.

Which brings us right back to why CFOs and CEOs hate IT.

 


 
Starting in 1987 with CIO magazine, CIO’s portfolio of properties has grown to provide technology and business leaders with insight and analysis on information technology trends and a keen understanding of IT’s role in achieving business goals. The magazine and website have received more than 160 awards to date, including two Grand Neal Awards from the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Awards and two National Magazine of the Year awards from the American Society of Publication Editors.
 

Developing an international BI strategy

linkedin Business Intelligence Professionals

Introduction

I am again indebted to a question raised on the LinkedIn.com Business Intelligence Professionals group for this article. The specific thread may be viewed here and the question was the beguilingly simple “How to understand BI requirements in an organisation?”
 
 
Background

The span of my International responsibilities
The span of my international responsibilities

I have previously written about some aspects of successfully achieving this in a European environment, but thought that it would be interesting to add my thoughts about doing the same thing more recently on a wider international scale.

[A note here, in common with many US-based companies, “international” means all non-US markets; in my case: Asia Pacific, Europe, Canada and Latin America. By way of contrast “global” means international plus the US domestic market, i.e. all operations.]

By way of providing some context, in previous years I had successfully built and deployed an Information Architecture for the European operations of a multinational Insurance organisation and extended components of this to our Latin American subsidiaries. I had also deployed the same corporation’s financial system to its Asia Pacific business. My track-record in adding value through BI and my exposure to two major projects in the international arena led to me being asked to build on the European technology assets to develop a management information strategy for the four international regions. This article is about how I succeeded in doing this.

Consistent with the general approach that I laid out in an earlier article, my two first objectives were to understand the needs of the various business groups across the four international regions and to form a high-level picture of the IT architecture in these areas. Although I pursued these twin goals in tandem, it was the business piece that I placed most emphasis on initially. It is this area that I will have most to say about here.
 
 
Understanding the business

The way that I approached my goal of learning about the international business was not novel in any aspect except possibly its scale. As you would expect, I did it by speaking to business managers from different countries and business units in each of Asia Pacific, Canada, Europe (I revisited the European requirements to make sure I was not neglecting these), Latin America and people with international or global responsibilities.

The countries whose MI requirements I had to establish
The countries whose MI requirements I had to establish

Some of these interviews were face-to-face, but – given the geographic spread of my correspondents – the bulk of them were over the ‘phone. The many time-zones involved provided another challenge. I am based in the UK and it was not atypical to be on the ‘phone talking to Australia or Singapore at 6am my time; pick up on some European meetings during the morning; talk to Canada, Latin America and the US parent during the afternoon and evening; and be back on the ‘phone to Australia at midnight. There were a lot of these 14-hour plus days!

One thing that I was surprised by in the process was how well it worked being on the ‘phone. Although I sometimes find it a lot easier to be speaking in person, being able to pick up on visual cues and so one, using the telephone both allowed me to listen vary carefully to what was being said and to take detailed notes; it is tough taking detailed notes while maintaining eye-contact of course. I structured the interviews to explore the following areas:

  1. An overview of the manager’s markets, products, structure, strategy, growth areas and any pressing business challenges
  2. Their thoughts on the general IT infrastructure available to them; looking beyond what some people might view as the world of management information
  3. The extent and quality of their current MI, including local and corporate reporting systems and even any Access databases and spread-sheets; here I placed particular emphasis on any major gaps
  4. What their vision was for improved MI facilities; an ideal state for MI if you will

This proved to be a successful approach and I learnt a remarkable amount about the differences between countries and markets. I normally allowed 30 minutes for these calls, suggesting in my introductory e-mail that if people were pressed for time, 15 might suffice. No call was ever less than half-an-hour long, most of them expanded to be an hour or more, such was the interest generated by my line of questioning.
 
 
The scale of the work

I had initially targeted speaking to around 40-50 managers, but quickly came to realise that – given the diversity of the organisation’s operations – I would need to talk to more people to get an accurate picture. As things worked out, I ended up interviewing precisely 100 managers. I started to try to describe the range of people that I talked to and quickly came to the conclusion that a picture paints a thousand words. The following exhibit provides a breakdown by geographic span of responsibility and area of the business:

The distribution of managers that I interviewed
The distribution of managers that I interviewed

The paper covering their detailed feedback from this exercise expanded to over 400 pages; each line of which was reviewed, sometimes amended, and signed-off by the people interviewed. Such a sign-off process certainly increases the duration of the work, but it is indispensable in my opinion. If you are inaccurate or incomplete in your understanding of the business, then you are building on foundations of sand. Of course, as well as using this exhaustive process to document business requirements, it was also a great opportunity to begin to establish relationships and also to gently start the process of marketing some of my ideas about MI.

It is clearly inappropriate for me to share my detailed findings about the business issues that the organisation was dealing with, however I will make one observation, which I think is probably replicated in many companies. When I spoke to managers at different levels within the organisation, they all cited similar strategies, challenges and priorities. This fact was testament to good communication between different tiers, however widely separated by geography, and also to a shared sense of purpose. What was however notable was that people at different levels gave varying emphasis to the issues. If a global leader prioritised areas as 1-2-3-4, it was not unusual that a manager at the country level instead ranked the same areas as 1-4-3-2. Perhaps this is not so surprising.
 
 
Understanding the systems

In parallel I also worked with the CIOs of each region and with members of their departments to understand the systems that different business units used and how they were interrelated. In doing this, it was helpful to already have the business perspective on these systems and I was able to provide general feedback about IT in each territory which was valuable to my colleagues. In this type of work (as indeed can be the case when thinking about different markets and products from the business perspective) it is sometimes easy to be overwhelmed by the differences. Instead, I made myself focus on teasing out the similarities. There ended up being many more of these that I had anticipated. In this work I relied to a great extent on my experience of consolidating data from three different underwriting systems (plus many other back-end systems) as part of my previous work in Europe.
 
 
Forming and validating a strategy

With this substantial background in both the business needs and the IT landscape, I was able to develop a management information strategy that focused on what was held in common across business units and departments, whilst still recognising the need to meet certain market-specific requirements. The lengthy hours of research that I had put in proved to be worthwhile when I presented my ideas back to many of the same group that I had interviewed and received their backing and approval.
 
 
Some final thoughts

While it was undeniably interesting and even fun to learn so much about the diverse operations of a large international organisation, the process was undeniably lengthy sometimes even arduous. It took six months from conception of the project to delivering detailed findings, recommendations and plans to the international senior management team (of course I also presented interim findings and draft recommendations several times over this period).

It remains my firm belief that this type of exercise is mandatory if you are really serious about adding value with BI. I can see no way to short-cut the process without substantially compromising on your deliverables and the value that they are intended to unlock. If you do not understand the business and its needs, it is nigh on impossible to deliver the information that they require to take decisions. In some areas of life, you just have to put in the hard work. Establishing the requirements for BI in a large international organisation is certainly one of these areas.
 

Scaling-up Performance Management

This was the title of a presentation that I made at the Butler Group BI Symposium in London during October. In this article I wanted to focus on just one theme that I discussed; namely meeting the management information needs of a variety of business units, each of which spanned a number of different countries across Europe.

The eight European countries impacted by my BI project

This seems like a very obvious thing to say, but if you goal is to meet the management information needs of a wide range of business units across multiple countries, then it helps to work with quite a few of them to figure out what they want, where this overlaps with your project objectives and how to get everything aligned.

In my experience things have always worked best when the project team have recognised this early on. In a recent European-based project, my team initially spent nine months working with a group of 30 business people from ten different departments and eight different countries (of course this process lasted a total of nine months, we did not lock them up in a room for the duration). We called this group our Extended Team. Part of our work with them was gathering requirements – we started with a blank sheet of paper and asked them what metrics they wanted to run their company. We then went through the painstaking work of better defining these ideas, distilling them down into different themes, making mock-up reports and eventually iterative prototypes. At each stage, we met again with the Extended Team and got their further input.

Now while this is a great way of gathering requirements and ensuring that your product will answer real business questions, it is and even better way to create a core group of business people who feel strong ownership of the product and are proud of their association with it. In turn, this helps amazingly with driving cultural change. On returning to their day jobs after a typical two-day meeting, the members of the Extended Team would be very positive about what they were involved in doing and share their enthusiasm with their colleagues. Momentum starts to gather and you begin to create a buzz about the project.

As well as being the people who helped us to make the eventual business intelligence system user-friendly and business-focussed the Extended Team were also our marketing representatives in the regions and helped to build up positive expectations about the system.

We put a lot of thought into the type of person that we wanted on this Extended Team. We wanted people who were leaders, who were open to doing things in new ways, who were comfortable with technology and who took an analytic approach to their work. This group made a major contribution to the success of the project. It would not have been possible to scale-up our solution without their assistance.
 


 
Continue reading about this area in: Developing an International BI Strategy.