The importance of feasibility studies in business intelligence

Introduction

Feasibility Study

In a previous article, A more appropriate metaphor for business intelligence projects, I explained one complication of business intelligence projects. This is that the frequently applied IT metaphor of building is not very applicable to BI. Instead I suggested that BI projects had more in common with archaeological digs. I’m not going to revisit the reasons for the suitability of looking at BI this way here, take a look at the earlier piece if you need convincing, instead I’ll focus on what this means for project estimation.

When you are building up, estimation is easier because each new tier is dependent mostly on completion of the one below, something that the construction team has control over (note: for the sake of simplicity I’m going to ignore the general need to dig foundations for buildings). In this scenario, the initial design will take into account of facts such as the first tier needing to support all of the rest of the floors and that central shafts will be needed to provide access and deliver essential services such as water, electricity and of course network cables. A reductionist approach can be taken, with work broken into discrete tasks, each of which can be estimated with a certain degree of accuracy. The sum of each of these, plus some contingency, hopefully gives you a good feel for the overall project. It is however perhaps salutary to note that even when building up (both in construction and in IT) estimation can still sometimes go spectacularly awry.

When you are digging down, your speed is dependent on what you find. Your progress is dictated by things that are essentially hidden before work starts. If your path ahead (or downwards) is obscured until your have cleared enough earth to uncover the next layer, then each section may hold unexpected surprises and lead to unanticipated delays. While it may be possible to say things like, “well we need to dig down 20m and each metre should take us 10 days”, any given metre might actually take 20 days, or more. There are two issues here; first it is difficult to reduce the overall work into tasks, second it is harder to estimate each task accurately. The further below ground a phase of the dig is, the harder it will be to predict what will happen before ground is broken. Even with exploratory digs, or the use of scanning equipment, this can be very difficult to assess in advance. However it is to the concept of exploratory digs that this article is devoted.
 
 
Why a feasibility study is invaluable

At any point in the economic cycle, even more so in today’s circumstances, it is not ideal to tell your executive team that you have no idea how long a project will take, nor how much it might cost. Even with the most attractive of benefits to be potentially seized (and it is my firm belief that BI projects have a greater payback than many other types of IT projects), unless there is some overriding reason that work must commence, then your project is unlikely to gain a lot of support if it is thus characterised. So how to square the circle of providing estimates for BI projects that are accurate enough to present to project sponsors and will not subsequently leave you embarrassed by massive overruns?

It is in addressing this issue that BI feasibility studies have their greatest value. These can be thought of as analogous to the exploratory digs referred to above. Of course there are some questions to be answered here. By definition, a feasibility study cannot cover all of the ground that the real project needs to cover, choices will need to be made. For example, if there are likely to be 10 different data sources for your eventual warehouse, then should you pick one and look at it in some depth, or should you fleetingly examine all 10 areas? Extending our archaeological metaphor, should your exploratory dig be shallow and wide, or a deep and narrow borehole?
 
 
A centre-centric approach

In answering this question, it is probably worth considering the fact that not all data sources are alike. There is probably a hierarchy to them, both in terms of importance and in terms of architecture. No two organisations will be the same, but the following diagram may capture some of what I mean here:

Two ways of looking at a systems' hierarchy
Two ways of looking at a systems' hierarchy

The figure shows a couple of ways of looking at your data sources / systems. The one of the left is rather ERP-centric, the one on the right gives greater prominence to front-end systems supporting different lines of business, but wrapped by a common CRM system. There are many different diagrams that could be drawn in many different ways of course. My reason for using concentric circles is to stress that there is often a sense in which information flows from the outside systems (ones primarily focussed on customer interactions and capturing business transactions) to internal systems (focussed on either external or internal reporting, monitoring the effectiveness of processes, or delivering controls).

There may be several layers through which information percolates to the centre; indeed the bands of systems and databases might be as numerous as rings in an onion. The point is that there generally is such a logical centre. Data is often lost on its journey to this centre by either aggregation, or by elements simply not being transferred (e.g. the name of a salesperson is not often recorded on revenue entries in a General Ledger). Nevertheless the innermost segment of the onion is often the most complex, with sometimes arcane rules governing how data is consolidated and transformed on its way to its final destination.

The centre in both of the above diagrams is financial and this is not atypical if what we are considering is an all-pervasive BI system aimed at measuring most, if not all, elements of an organisation’s activity (the most valuable type of BI system in my opinion). Even if your BI project is not all-pervasive (or at least the first phase is more specific), then the argument that there is a centre will probably still hold, however the centre may not be financial in this case.

My suggestion is that this central source of data (of course there may be more than one) is what should be the greatest focus of your feasibility study. There are several reasons for this, some technical, some project marketing-related:

  1. As mentioned above, the centre is often the toughest nut to crack. If you can gain at least some appreciation of how it works and how it may be related to other, more peripheral systems, then this is a big advance for the project. Many of the archaeological uncertainties referred to above will be located in the central data store. Other data sources are likely to be simpler and thus you can be more confident about approaching these and estimating the work required.
  2. A partial understanding of the centre is often going to be totally insufficient. This is because your central analyses will often have to reconcile precisely to other reports, such as those generated by your ERP system. As managers are often measured by these financial scorecards, if you BI system does not give the same total, it will have no credibility and will not be used by these people.
  3. Because of its very nature, an understanding of the centre will require at least passing acquaintance with the other systems that feed data to it. While you will not want to spend as much time on analysing these other systems during the feasibility study, working out some elements of how they interact will be helpful for the main project.
  4. One output from your feasibility study should be a prototype. While this will not be very close to the finished article and may contain data that is both unreconciled and partial (e.g. for just one country or line of business), it should give project sponsors some idea of what they can expect from the eventual system. If this prototype deals with data from the centre then it is likely to be of pertinence to a wide range of managers.
  5. Strongly related to the last point, and in particular if the centre consists of financial data, then providing tools to analyse this is likely to be something that you will want to do early on in the main project. This is both because this is likely to offer a lot of business value and because, if done well, this will be a great advert for the rest of your project. If this is a key project deliverable, then learning as much as possible about the centre during the feasibility study is very important.
  6. Finally what you are looking to build with your BI system is an information architecture. If you are doing this, then it makes sense to start in the middle and work your way outwards. This will offer a framework off of which other elements of your BI system can be hung. The danger with starting on the outside and working inwards is that you can end up with the situation illustrated below.
A possible result of building from the outside in to the center
A possible result of building from the outside in to the centre
 
Recommendations

So my recommendation is that your feasibility study is mostly a narrow, deep dig, focussed on the central data source. If time allows it would be beneficial to supplement this with a more cursory examination of some of the data sources that feed the centre, particularly as this may be necessary to better understand the centre and because it will help you to get a better idea about your overall information architecture. You do not need to figure out every single thing about the central data source, but whatever you can find out will improve the accuracy of your estimate and save you time later. If you include other data sources in a deep / wide hybrid, then these can initially be studied in much less detail as they are often simpler and the assumption is that they will support later deliveries.

The idea of a prototype was mentioned above. This is something that is very important to produce in a feasibility study. Even if we take to one side the undeniable PR value of a prototype, producing one will allow you to go through the entire build process. Even if you do this with hand-crafted transformation of data (rather than ETL) and only a simplistic and incomplete approach to the measures and dimensions you support, you will at least have gone through each of the technical stages required in the eventual live system. This will help to shake out any issues, highlight areas that will require further attention and assist in sizing databases. A prototype can also be used to begin to investigate system and network performance, things that will influence your system topology and thereby project costs. A better appreciation of all of these areas will help you greatly when it comes to making good estimates.

Having understood quite a lot about your most complex data source and a little about other ones and produced a prototype both as a sales tool and to get experience of the whole build process, you should have all the main ingredients for making a credible presentation to your project sponsors. In this it is very important to stress the uncertainties inherent in BI and manage expectations around these. However you should also be very confident in stating that you have done all that can be done to mitigate the impact of these. This approach, of course supported by a compelling business case, will position you very well to pitch your overall BI project.
 

Synthesis

RNA Polymerase producing mRNA from a double-stranded DNA template

  synthesis /sinthisiss/ n. (pl. syntheses /-seez/) 1 the process of building up separate elements, esp. ideas, into a connected whole, esp. a theory or system. (O.E.D.)  

Yesterday’s post entitled Recipes for success? seems to have generated quite a bit of feedback. In particular I had a couple of DMs from people I know on twitter.com (that’s direct messages for the uninitiated) and some e-mails, each of which asked me why I was so against business books. One person even made the assumption that I was anti-books and anti-learning in general.

I guess I need to go on a course designed to help people to express themselves more clearly. I am a bibliophile and would describe myself as fanatically pro-learning. As I mentioned in a comment on the earlier article, I was employing hyperbole yesterday. I would even go so far as to unequivocally state that some business books occasionally contain a certain amount of mildly valuable information.

Of course, when someone approaches a new area, I would certainly recommend that they start by researching what others have already tried and that they attempt to learn from what has previously worked and what has not. Instead, the nub of my problem is when people never graduate beyond this stage. More specifically, I worry when someone finds a web-article listing “10 steps that, if repeated in the correct sequence, will automatically lead to success” and then uncritically applies this approach to whatever activity they are about to embark on.

Assuming that the activity is something more complicated than assembling Ikea furniture, I think it pays to do two further things: a) cast your net a little wider to gather a range of opinions and approaches, and b) assemble your own approach, based borrowing pieces from different sources and sprinkling this with your own new ideas, or maybe things that have worked for you in the past (even if these were in slightly different areas). My recommendation is thus not to find the methodology or design that most closely matches your requirements, but rather to roll your own, hopefully creating something that is a closer fit.

This act of creating something new – based on research, on leveraging appropriate bits of other people’s ideas, but importantly adding your own perspective and tweaking things to suit your own situation – is what I mean by synthesis.

Of course maybe what you come up with is not a million miles from one of the existing prêt-à-porter approaches, but it may be an improvement for you in your circumstances. Also, even if your new approach proves to be suboptimal, you have acquired something important; experience. Experience will guide you in your next attempt, where you may well do better. As the saying maybe ought to go – you learn more from your own mistakes than other people’s recipes for success.
 


 
Addendum

The WordPress theme I use for this blog – Contempt – was written by Michael Heilemann a self-styled “Interface Designer, Web Developer, former Computer Game Developer and Film Lover”. Michael also writes a blog, Binary Bonsai and I felt that his article, George Lucas stole Chewbacca, but it’s OK, summed up (if you can apply the concept of summation to so detailed a piece of writing) a lot of what I am trying to cover in this piece. I’d recommend giving it a read, even if you aren’t a Star Wars fan-boy.
 

Recipes for success?

I should acknowledge that I am indebted to a conversation that I had with John Collins on his blog, Views from the Bridge, for some of the themes I discuss in this article.
 
Recipe for Success?
 
Introduction

Towards the end of a recent article on perseverance I referred to people’s desire to find recipes for success. Here’s what I said:

Sometimes we want to find a magic recipe for success, or – to mix the metaphor – a silver bullet. We want to discover a series of defined steps to take that, if repeated religiously, will guarantee that we get to the desired goal each and every time. That’s why articles entitled “The 5 ways to […]” and “My top tips for […]” are so well-read on the web.

As well as my examples of internet top tips (see any number of articles claiming to tell you how to use twitter successfully to get the idea), this phenomenon is also a major factor behind the enduring popularity of celebrity business books. As far as I can see, these fall into two categories.
 
 
1. The Ex-CEO

This is where the extremely successful and well-known Mr Brown (and sadly it is still mostly Mr, rather than Ms Brown), now retired but previously President and CEO of Big Company Inc., writes (or more likely has some one ghost-write) a memoir explaining the secrets of his success. While the book may dwell on their upbringing, education, role models, or character-forming events in their lives, much of the work will probably focus on them just being much smarter, more risk-taking, or having greater insight than the competition (most likely all of these). Of course there may well be some interesting tit-bits amongst the reams of self-aggrandisement, but it is worth questioning just how applicable these might be to your own situation.

Are the things that Mr Brown ascribes his success to really what led to his glittering career? Are there perhaps other factors that are not captured in the memoir, but which, if absent in another organisation, would render implementing Mr Brown’s explicit recommendations valueless? Did Mr Brown’s greatest achievements actually have a big slice of luck attached to them (stumbling upon a market or a product by accident, a major competitor losing their way, events beyond anyone’s control shaping matters and so on)? Would the things that Big Company Inc. did under Mr Brown’s esteemed leadership actually work in another company, in a different market or country and with a distinctive business culture?

Put it this way, if you work in Financial Services, would copying what worked in Retail be a good idea? Alternatively, if two companies are both in Retail, does it make sense for a less successful company to slavishly adopt the strategy of the market leader – wouldn’t it be more sensible if they tried to develop a different strategy in order to differentiate their brand?

Of course there is always value in learning from the mistakes and successes of others, but surely there is a limit to how useful a business memoir can be in forming a business strategy.
 
 
2. The Academic Expert

Here Professor Green (probably still male), has a long and distinguished career in academia, reading and deconstructing the memoirs of Mr Brown and his peers, identifying common themes between them, doing primary research and constructing recherché models of business strategy development and execution. If there is a new management fad out there, Professor Green is sure to know about it – in fact it may well be based on an article of his that appeared in HBR.

Well there is certainly some value in trying to tease out commonalities between successful companies, but this is probably a lot harder than it might seem. While there may be some recurring themes, maybe many of our champions of business are one offs, successful for reasons other than their business models or strategies. In fact they may well be as unique as the people who lead them. Maybe there is no equivalent of the standard model of quantum mechanics (to say nothing of a deeper grand unified theory) that underpins business success – perhaps the science of business is different from the more reductionist sciences, such as physics. Maybe there isn’t a formula for business success; perhaps it is more like Darwinian natural selection (I’ll come back to this idea later).

Whichever way you look at it, again there is probably a limit to how much insight you can glean from this type of book.
 
 
Other genres

Of course this phenomenon extends into many other areas of human activity. As a youth I can remember only too well poring over cricket manuals in an (ultimately fruitless) attempt to improve my batting or wicket-keeping. My father, at the age of 72, still does the same with golf manuals.

The endless array of cooking books also in the same category and where would we be without the panoply of self-help books such as The Seven Habits of Annoyingly Organised People? All of which goes to show that reliance on recipes for success is a deeply ingrained human trait.
 
 
Recipes for success in IT

Having established that people like turning to both “My top tips for […]” and “Mr Brown’s Glittering Career” (available at all good booksellers) how does this aspect of human nature impinge on one of my main areas of endeavour, IT?

Well it has a major impact in my opinion. In fact it is difficult to think of an area of life more obsessed with frameworks, blue-prints, road-maps, procedures, best practices and methodologies (to say nothing of ontologies and taxonomies). All of these are intended to take the risk out of activities – well at least to provide the people following them with the ability to say “well I did what the methodology told me to do”. Of course IT projects and IT development are very complex things and standards of design, coding and behaviour of systems are of paramount importance; but it still seems that IT people have a more visceral relationship with the above-stated areas than would be dictated solely by ticking the necessary boxes.

Nevertheless, having been personally responsible for instigating a thoroughgoing process of standardisation and quality control in a software house (and thereby obtaining an ISO accreditation), it would be churlish of me to argue that that there is no benefit in rigorously applying methodologies in IT.

When it comes to some aspects of project management and to change management in particular, some of the scepticism that I exhibited about celebrity business books returns. It’s not so much that a methodology or even a list of items to tick is not valuable, but that it cannot be an end in itself. The important thing is the thinking that goes into drawing up what you need to do and how you are going to do it, not the method that you use to record these and monitor progress. Sometimes these crucial ingredients get lost. Indeed there does seem to be an entire class of people who focus just on managing lists, rather than the ideas behind them, or the people actually doing the work.
 
 
The benefits of a Darwinian approach

Charles Darwin

I raised the idea of a Darwinian approach to business strategy earlier in this article. There do seem to be some crossovers with how we observe businesses in operation. We are familiar with the image of companies competing with each other for limited resources (our wallets, mine being very limited at present). We understand the pressure that organisations are under to come up with better, cheaper, more functional and sexier products (that are now carbon neutral and ethically-sourced as well).

The language of business is suffused by jungle analogies. The adaptation of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” to capitalism being just one of the most well-known examples. The companies that are best at this game survive and thrive, those that are not fail and are forgotten. Companies in more mature markets are even often referred to as dinosaurs or fossils. The idea of never-ending refinement and progress pushing on is an essential part of business.

However, perhaps this evolutionary approach, so evident at the macro-level can also work on a micro-scale. Maybe, rather than relying on the thoughts of Mr Brown or Professor Green, a better approach would be come up with some ideas of our own, test them, discard the bad ones and nurture the less bad ones. In time, with appropriate development and alteration, the less bad may become good and then even great (hang on, I seem to have found my way back to business books with that phrase!).

To me, such an approach is more likely to result in something novel and valuable. Following a recipe for success can only ever be as good as the recipe itself. Thinking for yourself can transcend these limitations and I would argue that the downside is no greater than attempting to ape someone else’s ideas. In both cases the worst that can happen is only extinction.
 
 
Disclaimer – sort of

Of course this article has a degree of self reference. Relying upon your own intellect (hopefully refined and improved by other people’s input) is of course another recipe for success. However I hope it is a less proscriptive one. I recommend giving it a try.
 


 
Continue reading about this area in: Synthesis.