BI and a different type of outsourcing

outsourcing

The current economic climate seems to be providing ammunition for both those who favour outsourcing elements of IT and those who abjure it. I’m not going to jump into the middle of these discussions today (though I am working on an article about the pros and cons of outsourcing BI which will appear here at some future point). Instead I want to talk about another type of outsourcing, one that ended up being a major success in a BI project that I recently led. The area I want to focus on is outsourcing analysis to the business.

The project was at an Insurance company and in these types of organisations one hub for business analysis is the actuarial department. These are the highly qualified and numerate people who often spend a lot of their time in simple number crunching with the aim of ensuring that underwriters have the data they need to review books of business and to take decisions about particular accounts. As with many such people, they have both the ability and desire to operate at a more strategic level. They are sometimes prevented from doing do by the burden of work.

As I have explained elsewhere, an explicit aim of this project was cultural transformation. We wanted to place reliance on credible, easy-to-use, pertinent information at the heart of all business decisions; to make it part of the corporate DNA. One approach to achieving this was making training programmes very business focussed. One exercise that the trainers (both actuarial and indeed me) took delegates through was estimating the future profitability of a book of business based on performance in previous years (using loss triangulation if you are interested). This is a standard piece of actuarial work, but the new BI system was so intuitive that underwriters could do this for themselves. Indeed they embraced doing so, realising that they could get a better and more frequently updated insight into their books of business in this way.

This meant two things. First the number-crunching workload of actuarial was reduced. Second when underwriters and actuarial engaged in discussions, for example around insurance estimates to be included in year-end results, the process was more of an informed dialogue than the previous, sometimes adversarial, approach. Actuarial time is freed-up to focus on more complex analysis, underwriters become more empowered to manage their own portfolios and the whole organisation moves up the value chain.

This is what I mean by the idea of outsourcing analysis to the business. In some ways it is the same phenomenon as companies outsourcing internal administrative tasks to customers via web applications. However, it is more powerful than this. Instead of simply transferring costs, knowledge and expertise is spread more widely and the whole organisation begins to talk about the business in a different and more consistent manner.

It’s nice to be able to report a success story for at least one type of outsourcing.
 

“Can You Really Manage What You Measure?” by Neil Raden

beyenetwork2

I have to say that BeyeNETWORK is becoming the go to place for intelligent BI insights.

In this recent article, Neil Raden challenges the received wisdom that, if you can measure something, managing it follows as a natural corollary. This is a problem that I have seen in a number of BI implementations. It can be characterised as the Field of Dreams problem, if we build it, they will come!

One way to better align BI provision with the management of an organisation is to make sure that any BI element that you deploy is targeted at answering a specific business question. It is important that answering the question leads to action.

If the reaction to learning that sales in the Philadelphia office are down by 2% is a shrug, then not a lot has been achieved. If instead it is easy to further analyse the drivers behind this (e.g. which part of the sales funnel is suffering from a blockage?, is this a temporary blip, or a trend?, is the phenomenon centred on a specific product, or across the board?, etc.) then we begin to embed the use of information to drive decision-making in the organisation. If this leads to an informed telephone conversation with the Philly branch manager and the creation of an action plan to address the fall-off in sales, then BI is starting to add value. This gets us into the area of Actionable Information that Sarah Burnett writes about.

This is one reason why it is important that business intelligence is considered within a framework of cultural transformation; one of the main themes of this blog.
 


 

BeyeNETWORK provides viewers with access to the thought leaders in business intelligence, performance management, business integration, information quality, data warehousing and more.

Neil Raden is an “industry influencer” – followed by technology providers, consultants and even industry analysts. His skill at devising information assets and decision services from mountains of data is the result of thirty years of intensive work. He is the founder of Hired Brains, a provider of consulting and implementation services in business intelligence and analytics to many Global 2000 companies. He began his career as a casualty actuary with AIG in New York before moving into predictive modeling services, software engineering and consulting, with experience in delivering environments for decision making in fields as diverse as health care to nuclear waste management to cosmetics marketing and many others in between. He is the co-author of the book Smart (Enough) Systems and is widely published in magazines and online media. He can be reached at nraden@hiredbrains.com.
 

Education and cultural transformation

Back in September of this year, Obis Omni were kind enough to invite me to speak at their Forum 2008, which took place on the outskirts of London and had the theme of “Realising Business Intelligence & Corporate Performance Management Success”.

The strap-line of my presentation was “EMIR – A case study in cultural change”. I have written about some of the themes that I discussed at this seminar elsewhere on this blog (e.g. about the importance of promoting your project in Marketing Change and the strong role to be played by extended business teams in Scaling-up Performance Management). In this article I am going to talk about some aspects of the pivotal area of education.
 
Obis Omni
 
Background on The EMIR Project can be found elsewhere on this site. Briefly it was a business intelligence / data-warehousing project aimed at improving the profitability of the European operations of a multinational insurance organisation.

More importantly, EMIR was always seen as primarily a cultural transformation initiative. The explicit aim of the system was to transform the culture of the organisation into one in which the use of credible, timely and easy-to-use information became as much second nature as picking up the telephone. Of course one initial learning here is that if you are in the business of cultural transformation, it helps an awful lot to tell people that this is the case. Having this element as a public goal was of great assistance.
 
 
Making a good first impression

Having already established a strong extended business team (see the links in the first paragraph above) the project team also realised that there was another important group to win over; our first set of 20 or so training delegates. We felt that if they went back to their offices singing the praises of EMIR then this, supported by the voices of the extended team would give us the necessary momentum to carry us through the first training phase and make a great start to our cultural change work.

It is often said (perhaps sometimes glibly) that as much attention should be paid to the deployment of IT systems as to their development. Many IT managers may not truly believe this in their heart-of-hearts, perhaps an “if I build it, they will come” attitude is sometimes more prevalent. However, with the EMIR project we took the educational aspect extremely seriously.

To start with this we made EMIR training a 3-day event, something that was unprecedented in IT training in the organisation. Second, we insisted that all delegates (the senior managers of the European organisation) travel to London to attend the course*. One reason for the duration was that we wanted to cover a lot of ground, but also we wanted to send a message that this was an important event and merited the devotion of an appropriate amount of time.

A lot of effort and thought went into the presentations that would be made, the different styles of training (some lecture style, more hands-on), the quality of the supporting training materials, the arrangement of the rooms and so on. I assigned one of my senior managers to oversee the training and we also employed an external training consultant to help us design the courses and user guides and achieve the professional look that we were going for.
 
 
The importance of real-life examples

Sometimes training simply explains how to use the technical features of a system, but, again, we were in the business of cultural transformation and so this shifted opur emphasis. Because of this, and also because the system was pretty intuitive and easy to use, in training we focussed on using the system to address real-life business problems. One example of this would be estimating the future profitability of a book of business based on historical trends.

This approach meant that the business value inherent in the system was clearly demonstrated. This was not an IT system, it was a business system. A key first step in changing the behaviour of managers was establishing that there was something in it for them; namely that they could get at information that was previously unavailable, that access to information was quick and easy and that their decision-making would be enhanced. Ticking these boxes through our real-life exercises helped to engage the enthusiasm of delegates and made them more receptive to our other proposals for how to build use of the system into their day-to-day lives.

This business-focussed training was initially carried out by our actuaries, however as demand for training soared in later weeks, I also ran many of these workshops. It was potentially a major challenge for an IT person to be telling insurance underwriters how to run their business, but something that I actually enjoyed very much. While discussing training personnel, we always had at least two people present in the classes as well as the lead trainer. The role of these other people was to check that delegates were keeping up and help anyone who was struggling with an exercise. We did not want anyone to fall so far behind that they became disengaged from the programme.
 
 
Breaking the back of cultural change

Our approach worked and our first twenty delegates became converts to the EMIR cause. Before the first training session, delegates has (understandably) been somewhat reluctant to commit so significant a period of time to the training process. After it an example of the type of message that attendees took back with them to their offices was: –

“This is the best management information I have seen, it represents a big leap forward”

It was not all down-hill from this point and a further article will deal with how we sustained cultural change over the latter stages of this project. However, after this initial success, some things became easier and we had safely negotiated what was probably the largest hurdle in the project.

Given this, I was quite happy to release some project funds for champagne at the end of our first three days, but should stress that the project was brought in under budget nevertheless.
 


 
Continue reading about this area in: Sustaining Cultural Change.
 
 
Note: –

* In latter training phases – having succeeded in making our point – training was often carried out in each European country, something I will cover in the future.
 

Thank you to Sharm Manwani

Sharm Manwani's Blog

Sharm is Associate Professor of IT at Henley Business School who I was lucky enough to hear speak at the recent Chase Zander Change Director Forum. He was kind enough to link to the article, Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus, that I wrote about this seminar on his blog at Computing.co.uk (the specific article may be viewed here).

I would recommend people browsing through Sharm’s articles which provide a sharp insight on technology’s contribution to business change.
 

Marketing Change

Neither fish nor fowl

Introduction

Much of my career has been involved with change; either driving it, or reacting to it. The types of change have varied: sometimes internal, sometimes external; sometimes glaringly obvious, sometimes subtly emergent. Change teams are at the sharp end of change; they are the people charged with bringing it about. Ranged against them are the powerful forces of inertia and fear of the unknown. Given these obstacles and the intrinsic appeal of the status quo to the majority of humans, how best to make change successful? In attempting to offer a partial answer I am not going to discuss an overall methodology; instead I want to focus on what I believe is an important, and often overlooked tool – marketing.

Marketing may seem something of a foreign concept to change teams. Often their members have a background in running projects, some of them may have technical skills. Why is it pertinent to change?
 
 
What is marketing change?

First of all let me make a definition. Marketing can seem synonymous with advertising and sales. Though I am interested in these connotations, I would adopt a more holistic meaning of marketing: marketing is the set of activities related to acquiring and retaining customers. Therefore marketing touches on virtually all aspects of an organisation’s operations.

Some translation is required in applying this definition of marketing to change initiatives. The word customer is still pertinent, but in our context, it means the people who will be impacted by change, or – to put it another way – whose compliance is required to enact change. Compliance is an interesting term, it can have a negative connotation; people must comply, or suffer the consequences. Maybe a different way to look at this is to substitute “enthusiasm” for “compliance”. Let’s pause and ask ourselves some questions. First, is change likely to be more successful if we rely upon the compliance of people, or if we rely upon their enthusiasm? I would argue that the latter is likely to be a more profitable approach. Second, if enthusiasm is important, then how do we go about generating this? This is where the techniques of marketing come into play. Normal marketing is about acquiring and retaining customers for a product or service. Marketing change is about creating and sustaining enthusiasm; not about a product or service, but about change itself.
 
 
A lesson from Hollywood

In seeking to make change successful we can perhaps learn from an industry renowned for its marketing; Hollywood. If we consider the latest blockbuster, then the marketing approach is broad and multi-channelled. There is traditional advertising, such as roadside hoardings, or glossy pages in newspapers. Relatively newer approaches, such as banners appearing on pertinent web-sites also fall into this category, as would trailers being shown before other films. However Hollywood goes a long way beyond this. Stars of the film suddenly appear on chat shows or are interviewed in newspapers. A web-site for the film is launched where snippets can be viewed and new content is drip-fed over time. These sites can create a sense of anticipation, but also increasingly ownership, particularly if they allow interaction. Opinion-formers (aka film critics) are engaged early on, with previews in the hope that they will influence people to go to the film. Given the target audience of many blockbusters, there are often many tie-ins with related toys, video games and even themed meals at fast-food restaurants. Sometimes a new film can seem omnipresent; if people want to find out more about it there is no lack of ways in which they can do this.
 
 
Multi-channel marketing of change

Transferring these learnings to change management, the value of making project related figurines available at your local burger bar is probably limited, but many other things apply. In trying to generate enthusiasm, it is important to explain to people what is happening, why it is happening and the importance of change. Some of the same multi-channel approaches can be used to do this. This would include newsletters, e-mails, intranet sites and even posters strategically placed around the office. Of course people are bombarded by information and may filter things out. This means that it is important to leverage any hooks that you may have. For example, maybe make information about change available on a web-site that people already have to visit to carry out some other task. Don’t shove the information down their throats, but make links to further background available for the curious.

With web-sites, the drip-feed concept is important. It is better to have content that changes and expands over time than to seek to answer all questions from the beginning. If there are stages to your change plan, then using the web-site to document achievements is a good idea. For example if Phase I consists of making a change in Country A, then positive post-change interviews with staff from Country A will help to build confidence in other territories. As with any web-site, it will only be successful if people continue to return to it, so think of ways in which you can achieve this.

Newsletters and e-mails are sometimes only read by those who are already interested, so consider novel ways of getting your message across. Maybe a video of your CEO (or even the change team manager) talking about what is going on would catch people’s attention more. If the type of change that you are engaged in is such that the before and after can be described graphically, then consider taking this approach with people; a picture paints a thousand words after all. If there is a systems element, then videos of prototypes or even access to pilot versions can also help.
 
 
The human angle

While technology can be massively helpful in these areas, human interaction remains crucial. This is perhaps the analogue of a film’s stars being interviewed. Ask for a brief slot at regular business meetings to talk about your change project and field questions. Follow-up on these sessions with extra information tailored to the particular audience’s concerns.

The role of film critics can be mirrored in identifying early adopters. Whatever type of change you are engaged with, there are likely to be those who are more likely to embrace it. If you can identify these people and spend time in winning them to your cause, then they can act as your sales force with their colleagues. This dovetails with the idea of advertising early successes mentioned above. What you want to do is to build momentum and nothing breeds success like success.
 
 
Finally, this article is not intended to provide all the answers. There are going to be marketing techniques that are appropriate for some projects and not others. Marketing is perhaps not something that is currently seen as a necessary core competence of change teams, but I believe that it ought to be and hope that it will become so over time. I would recommend that anyone engaged in driving change consider what tips they can learn from marketing in other industries and what contribution it can make to the success of their projects.
 


 
Continue reading about this area in: Education and cultural transformation.
 

Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus

Home for Business People and IT Practitioners?

Chase Zander were kind enough to invite me to their recent Change Director Forum, which took place on 11th November 2008 in London. As per their web-site: –

The event focused on IT-Enabled Change and sparked an interesting debate from the floor into the issues facing change programmes and projects which often rely heavily on the introduction of new information technology.

Some related items began to spark ideas in my mind: –

First, one of the speakers, Dr. Sharm Manwani from Henley Business School, referred to a survey of senior IT managers which asked them about areas in which they felt a lack of skill might be reducing their effectiveness. The area that came out as most important was “interpersonal skills”. Many people also said that they lacked in-depth knowledge of their organisation’s business, but this was not seen as a major problem by respondents.

Second, during what proved to be a lively debate, many attendees made reference to “IT” and “the business” in the way that one might juxtapose Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This is a common refrain whenever IT managers are gathered together. Often a key issue is whether IT or the business (again that juxtaposition) should own projects, or strategy development, or technology budgets.

Third, Dr Manwani, in what was an illuminating talk, presented a chart which featured “in between” roles such as “business solutions manager” or “programme manager” which are intended to form a bridge between IT and the business. He also questioned whether there might be better ways to bring business and IT together.

To my way of thinking, if you need to form a bridge between IT and the business, then you are already facing a major problem. Even in today’s web-enabled, always-connected world, it appears to be acceptable for IT and business to be viewed as something separate: Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus. It is OK for business leaders to express a lack of knowledge about IT and for IT leaders to express a lack of knowledge about business; in some organisations it may even be a badge of honour for both “sides”. The word “sides” appears in inverted commas intentionally; this world view is a major part of the problem in my opinion.

Maybe I was just lucky enough to spend the formative years of my career in an organisation where IT was the business, but I would argue for a reassessment of the spurious dividing line between IT and business. I believe that IT is a business discipline and that the best IT managers are business managers. They are people who have a particular skill-set that they can bring to business challenges; in this respect they are no different to sales managers, or finance managers or any other manager with a specific hinterland of expertise and experience.

In many ways, it seems that IT managers are happy with the perception that that are somehow different. They may even revel in the mystique of the “dark arts” that they and their department practise. Perhaps being seen as different helps self-esteem. Less positively, in disavowing their full business role, perhaps many IT managers are content to retreat into their speciality. It is maybe comforting to have the middle-men, such as business solutions managers to act as insulation and to take the blame when things go wrong. How often have we all heard IT managers cite poorly defined or shifting business requirements for systems’ failures? How often is the lack of a clearly defined business strategy offered as an excuse for the lack of a clearly defined IT strategy?

I believe that these types of complaints are indicative of a pernicious problem in IT management. It is human to look for others to blame when things go badly, but if IT managers do not properly understand business issues, if they do not become part of the overall business management team and if they allow themselves and their departments to become semi-detached, then they really only have themselves to blame.

So, rather than ending on a negative note, let me repeat my call for IT managers to start to view themselves more as business managers. In embracing the ever increasing tempo of modern business and better understanding the dynamics that drive this, IT managers can both be more effective in their roles and also enjoy themselves much more at the same time. Surely those outcomes merit what is probably not an enormous investment of time and energy.