Understanding Business Intelligence

Though Business Intelligence is technology driven, it is more about Business requirements and less about technology.  BI Champion/ Sponsor in the organization defines the vision and mission.

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The leader must have the ability to precisely define the Business intelligence requirements of the organization; the format of the reports; the relationship between the different data elements and version of the data to be used. The leaders need to specify how much history needs to be included; how often the data needs to be provided to the different stakeholders of the process.

BI is then driven by the business objective which may not necessarily always be to reduce the cost or increase the top line/ bottom line for an organization, but to use the data analysis in bringing efficiencies in the process or enhance the service experience for the customer.

The impetus for the BI initiative is the availability of data and technology for data analysis.  Ideally the organization should have at least two or three years of data in electronic format for meaningful analysis. The larger the volume of core data available in the systems, the more meaningful will be the output that can be expected from Business Intelligence.

However it must be recognized that data may not always be structured and data coming from multiple sources may not be in the same format. Data will have to be interpreted on the basis of logical assumptions and data gaps will have to be identified upfront so that changes can be made to business processes at the point of data capture.

The Management must be made aware that resource and time commitment for BI is much higher than resource commitment for IT projects and there must be a high level of management commitment to making the BI project a success.

  1. Business leaders and IT analysts will have to allocate substantial amount of time to mapping business requirements to IT system capabilities both during the design and implementation phase of the project.  The leaders and IT developers will have to constantly interact for a proper representation of the Business questions in terms of analytical outputs.

2.      IT professionals involved in the process will have to explain to the Business leadership the nature and meaning of the data that is available in the systems. They will have to clarify how exceptions are to be handled by the leadership and also the limitations of the systems. The implication is that IT resources will also have to make a time commitment for BI.

  1. Subject matter experts also have a significant role to play in Business Intelligence projects.  As ultimate users of the system, they are in the best position to test the outputs and validate the significance of the Queries and the outputs derived from such queries.  They have the experience and the ability to flag exceptions and help fix them.  This implies that subject matter experts too need to contribute a significant amount of time for the success of the project.  They may even need to join the project team on a full time basis during the testing phase.

The Project plan must reflect the level of business personnel who will be involved and the organization must be willing to release these people to join the project team as and when a request for their services is made.

It also follows that the project team and all those involved in BI must be open to learning and acquiring the skills that are essential for the effective functioning of the BI system that is being put in place.

Having said all this, it is necessary to point out that Business Intelligence cannot be a time bound project. Nor can the teams be disbanded with the first successful run of a data query or queries.

Query design, testing, redesign and use of new toolsets are inevitable. In short, BI is an evolving system that cannot be pinned down and bounded by traditional project management definitions.

The BI requirements change as business requirements evolve and change. No single requirement definition can be characterized as a permanent, unchanging requirement.  The Business leaders, IT analysts and Subject matter experts will have to be constantly engaged in designing and developing queries; testing the outputs on field formations; obtaining feedback on the usefulness or otherwise of the outputs and exceptions that need to be handled.  It is an iterative process.

It requires the institution of an agile system development and process management approach. Highly skilled personnel must constantly and continuously work together to deliver on the objectives of BI with little requirements being defined upfront with more requirements being designed and refined on the go.

Scope of work will have to be “time-boxed” to each cycle of the project and goals and objectives of each time box will have to be specified separately.  Cycles which cannot be completed within the time specified will have to be deferred and included as part of the future development cycles. As a result, traditional project management methodologies will fail.

Since change is the only constant in BI, definition of a change management strategy is an imperative. The strategy must be built around the recognition that Business requirements change, changing BI requirements/queries; resulting in a change in the type of toolsets used and the skillsets that are required by BI stakeholders.

It should be remembered that People are resistant to change. Consumers of BI reports are no exceptions. They need to be educated about the benefits of the exercise and the producers of the data must be aligned to ensure data quality is never compromised by placing appropriate controls in the systems.

Training needs must be studied, documented; trainings organized whenever there is a change in any one or more components that operationalize the Business Intelligence unit.

The organization must also recognize that reporting requirements and formats will change with every change in the BI requirement. All reporting formats cannot be axed at once and all reporting formats cannot change overnight. The change must be planned and initiated based on schedules that have been agreed upon by the different stakeholders.

Existing reports and tools should be retired gradually and transition periods must be orchestrated carefully and thoughtfully. Trainings must be organized to transition all stakeholders to the new formats.  Organization of workshops and change management seminars must be part and parcel of the Business Intelligence unit’s functioning.

Finally, it must be reiterated that BI is not a project. It is a program.  The solution must dovetail into the existing environment and reinforce the business processes that are in use.  Any data extraction exercise for BI must be done without disturbing the workflow in the organization or impacting the reliability of the information that is being gathered during business operations.

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