“Just because Jeffrey Archer exists, it doesn’t follow that Joseph Conrad can’t have existed”
The context of the above bon mot was – as is often the case – a discussion on LinkedIn.com. I have been rather absent from the LinkedIn.com discussion groups for the same reasons that I have not been blogging and tweeting. In this case, my attention was drawn to the debate by a colleague.
The particular thread was posted by Andy McKnight and is entitled What’s missing from Business Intelligence? and at the time of writing has attracted nearly 60 responses (you have to be a member of the group to view the discussion). It referred to an article published by EMC2 which has the strap-line How CIOs can Reap the Benefits of BI Technology (note: this is a PDF document). Here is a pertinent quote:
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!