There’s no doubt that technology has vastly changed our abilities to accumulate and interrogate data. And that the return on investment of solid BI systems is outstripping investments in other areas of technology, or business in general. There is no shortage of applications and businesses that will take your money to provide you with the ability to access, transform and report on your data. These companies are all, at heart, technology driven. But somehow, I think they’re going about it all wrong. Sure, if you just want a BI tool, then these applications may fit the bill. But if what you really need is a good BI strategy, then I think you should go about it backward (IB – Intelligent Business).
Let’s Play a Drinking Game.
Want to play a fun drinking game? Just grab a bottle of tequila, a couple of mates and stream any one of the myriads of promotional videos available from the major BI vendors. You have to drink a shot every time you hear the word “data.” Guaranteed you’ll be sick of tequila by the end of the video!
What’s wrong with data? Nothing, it’s an essential part of a BI tool. But focussing on data as you start to build your BI system is the equivalent of Elon Musk launching the vision for the next Tesla by talking about the great iron ore mine he just found. Or starting to build a house by dropping into the hardware store to see what they have in stock.
I hope you get my point. Focussing on data when building a BI tool is far less likely to get you the optimal result than focussing on what you are trying to achieve with the tool in the first place.
Start at the end.
There are five essential stages in the successful use of BI, essentially the process looks like this:
Any good project plan or strategy should start with “What are we trying to achieve?” BI is no different and working backward from the end result ensures you are always focussed on these goals. A great BI strategy isn’t all about data, it’s about people and culture. And if the first thing you look at with a BI tool is the data you have, you run the risk of ignoring the data you need that you may not have.
To build a great BI strategy, start with the results you want and then ask what activities will drive those results. From this, identify the knowledge your team needs to drive those actions, and what information will provide that knowledge. At this stage, you will have identified the data you need which is most likely to include some significant data gaps that will need to be filled to build your tool. Turning data into information is where technology really makes our lives easier, but converting that information into knowledge, action, and results is a culture and people issue, not a technology one.
Where it all goes wrong.
Technology has come a long way since I built my first BI tool in Lotus 1-2-3 in 1986. We can now extract, transform and load huge amounts of data in no time, and the intuitive and aesthetic data visualisation and distribution tools that are now available are as impressive as they are abundant. Generally, the people selling and implementing these tools have their roots in the technology and thus want to begin the process with where they are strong – the data set. The BI tools often have standard plug-ins to enable them to be easily deployed to common database instances and most of them will allow you to extend the data sources to other datasets as well. But this “data first” focus often leads the project astray and delivers an outcome which looks impressive but doesn’t drive the optimum results.
Out-of-the-Box versus Customised
Get one thing straight, unless your business is completely vanilla and runs exactly the same way as every other business in your industry, you will need to customise your BI tool. BI vendors will sell you on a BI solution with a standard (and often quite cheap) data structure and plug-in and they’ll happily deliver you something that looks good but grossly underperforms against its potential. The majority of the value you will get from your BI tool will be by interrogating data in a way that is unique to your business. By starting the project looking at the end goals and working back to the available data, you’ll gain a full understanding of your needs and how that varies from the standard offering from any of the available BI tools.
You may decide to opt for a fully customised solution. Tools to build these in are relatively cheap; Microsoft’s SSRS is an included part of the SQLServer suite of tools, and their PowerBI costs about $9 per user per month. Building a fully customised solution may entail a higher initial setup cost but will mostly pay off with low (or no) ongoing subscription costs.
Leave IT out of it.
Until such time as you have decided the knowledge you need to gain that is required to drive the activities that will achieve the results you need, I’d leave IT out of the conversation. Mapping your BI tool to the company structure is one of my four tenets of a successful BI strategy, so I would engage with your department heads and assess their BI needs, from Results to Actions to Knowledge. From the results you hope to gain you’ll know the value of the BI tool to the various departments, so you can have priorities and a budget set as well before you engage the technology specialists.
At this stage, you will know that what will be built will be, to some degree, unique to your business and you’ve will have built a list of must-haves for your BI tool. This will allow you to quickly assess the various options in BI tools, vendors and developers and now you can work with your IT department to make the best choice.
From this point forward the project will become easier. Trust me with the tools and technologies at hand now, building a solid BI tool is a relatively simple task. Defining a strategy for the best build design and implementation is a lot harder!
This guest article was written by Tim Grimes; Marketing Mentor, BI strategist and Business Coach, you can contact him via his LinkedIn profile here.