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6 critical guidelines for Business Intelligence beginners

EducationBusiness Intelligence (BI) consistently ranks as one of the top priorities in various CIO and IT surveys. A recent Gartner survey puts BI as the top CIO priority for the last two years running. Forrester comes to the same conclusion.

The fact is, many companies are (or are planning on) adopting a Business Intelligence solution for the very first time. With data growing by leaps and bounds, it’s no surprise that more businesses are looking for ways to capitalize on that data.

The only problem: Most BI implementations fail. It’s no secret. According to various surveys on the topic, anywhere from 60% – 80% of BI projects fail. Yikes.

This paints a grim picture. Implementing BI is the #1 CIO priority, and many businesses will start a BI project in the near future…but most BI projects fail.

Today, let’s explore a few ways to lower those numbers. What must companies who are new to BI do to ensure success? What critical tips should these companies follow? We posed those questions to a few experts in the field, and have compiled their advice (along with some of my own) below. Here are 6 critical tips for BI beginners:

1. Understand the big picture

I know–it sounds obvious…yet it’s a problem I see all too often. It’s easy to get caught up in the technology or the small details surrounding a BI implementation. However, don’t lose site of the big picture. Map out your overriding goals and make sure everyone involved in the process is on the same page.

“Have a strong sense of the big picture,” says Jay Millard, COO of Amadeus Consulting. “Understand what you want the BI system to do in terms of how it will make your business operate more efficiently internally and for your customers. Then, think about the small details that comprise this vision for operation.”

2. Understand the important questions

photo credit: Tsahi Levent-Levi via photopin cc
photo credit: Tsahi Levent-Levi via photopin cc

One of the biggest mistakes in any software implementation: A failure to define success. Many companies go into Business Intelligence without clearly defining what would make it successful. Sure, “a better understanding of your business” is a good outcome, but…what does that mean specifically? What exactly do you hope to learn about your business from your BI solution? This starts with an understanding of the most important questions.

“Know what questions you need answers to,” says Dave Lucas, a long-time IT professional and current CEO of Dawning Truth. “For instance do you want to know which products are most profitable in New York, or do you want to do costing analysis by State, or do you need to understand the relationship between pricing and profitability by quarter.”

3. Find a product champion

In my 30+ years in the software industry, I’ve found that companies who are most successful with software implementations share a common characteristic: They have a product champion. They have someone within the company who takes the reins and drives the software forward.

How important is a product champion? I’ve seen software go from near failure to raging successes as a result of a product champion. Companies who were about to write the software off suddenly find that it’s an integral part of their business. Why? Because someone stepped up and became the product champion.

When you deploy BI software, find that person. Who will drive adoption in the company? Who will show others how the BI software will help them meet their needs? Who will demonstrate its capabilities to others? If you deploy software without identifying a product champion, you’re heading for failure.

4. Start with the data

While this may seem obvious, I’ve seen the problem spring up far too often. Successful Business Intelligence starts with good, reliable data. If that’s not in place, you can’t expect to deploy BI software with any hope of success.

“Make sure you have the data,” explains Lucas. “This is twofold: Firstly make sure you have the right data to answer your questions – if you do not have the data, you can’t answer the question. It’s as simple as that. Secondly ensure your data is accurate, timely and reliable. There is nothing worse than basing a decision on the wrong data, or outdated data. You can easily make a mistake that will cost you big time.”

5. Start small, avoid big bangs

photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via photopin cc
photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via photopin cc

In application modernization, I promote an “extend-and-surround” approach. It calls for a gradual modernization of the most important applications without disrupting the business. I think the same applies to BI. Don’t try to roll everything out at once. Rather, start with the areas that most desperately need BI, and expand from there. Start with little wins, and gradually spread to other areas.

“Let the process grow organically,” explains Lucas. “Companies that take a big bang approach often struggle to get value out of their BI. They often end-up with inflexible monolithic systems which don’t answer the right questions. It is better to grow in baby steps, and to learn about your data and your questions as you go along. This way you will get a far better ROI on your investment, as you will be getting crucial answers from the very beginning.”

6. Don’t try to measure everything

“Business Intelligence has two main parts: measurements and displays,” explains Steven Lowe, Founder of Innovator, LLC. “The tendency, especially for beginners, is to try to measure and display everything. Try, at least to start, the opposite approach: pick one to three measurements that are truly important and actionable, measure only those, and display them in a format that can be understood at a glance.”

I agree with Lowe, and want to expand on one of his points: Don’t measure data that can’t drive action. Let me explain: In Business Intelligence, there’s a term known as “vanity metrics.” This is data that makes you feel good, but doesn’t lead to change. It doesn’t drive action. Measure the metrics that can lead to change. Ask yourself, “What are we going to do about this metric?” If the answer isn’t immediate and obvious, perhaps it’s not worth measuring.

So, what do you think? Do you have any other tips for BI beginners? If so, I’d love to hear them in the comments.