E-Commerce

Four keys to business intelligence success

Business intelligence encompasses a wide array of services. Scott Lowe provides his take on the "BI failure fault" question and briefly describes Westminster College's modest BI efforts.

Last summer, I wrote about efforts at Westminster College to implement improved business processes and new business intelligence capabilities to help guide our decision making and focus our efforts on those areas that truly need attention. This is the great promise behind business intelligence efforts - the ability to better understand weak areas and surgically target those areas rather than relying on gut instinct and scattershot methods.

Our Enrollment Services division, in concert with the IT group, has spent significant time developing new reports and dashboard-style metrics to help that division meet their ever-increasing goals. Like most small colleges with small endowments, Westminster is very tuition dependent and hitting all of our enrollment goals is incredibly important, even in a down economy. This group and, as a result, the entire college, has benefited tremendously from having critical information at their fingertips.

More recently, we've begun to deploy to our college president mini-dashboards containing targeted key performance indicators that always sit on his desktop. Now, the president probably doesn't need up-to-the-minute information about every aspect of the operation - in fact that could end up being a major hindrance - but there are some data points that he wants to watch like a hawk, particularly because our institutional success relies so heavily on this information.

The question: Whose responsibility is it to make sure that our business intelligence system is appropriately implemented and that the data is accurate? My take: Everyone's — to include the CIO and the president. Quite frankly, business intelligence is an organization-wide effort very often led by the CIO. Everyone has different roles in the effort, though. It's the job of the CEO/President and the senior management team to make BI an organizational priority and to put resources behind it. Without this commitment, a BI project cannot succeed.

It's the responsibility of the CIO to guide the project, make sure that what's being requested is technically feasible and, in many cases, to assist stakeholders, including the CEO and department heads, to figure out what they want and what their part is in the BI implementation. The CIO simply can't be the end-all, be-all expert across all areas of the business with deep understanding of exactly what makes every area tick. I definitely see the CIO role as a facilitator, enabler, and advisor in BI efforts. That's not to say that the CIO can't assume significant tactical responsibility in the effort, but the individual business units must be knowledgeable enough to understand what data they're collecting and what that data means to their success.

Those same business units must also understand the implications that could come with oversharing data. If too much is shared, it could spin an executive into micromanagement mode if metrics start to go the wrong direction, even if metrics are supposed to ebb and flow.

Our (so far) modest BI undertakings at Westminster have very much been joint efforts between IT and everyone else. I've helped to define the overall project while individual departments have partnered with an IT person to implement what they need. I have personally handled some of the dashboard development as well, but again, this is in partnership with others. As the CIO, I do have a very good understanding of what key performance indicators are considered by our president to be critical information, and I've worked with the departments responsible for the work that generates those metrics to make sure that the information we're pulling is accurate and current. Before we put a new metric onto an "official" dashboard, we vet that data carefully. Nothing is worse than making decisions based on bad data!

Here are four keys to success that I feel must be in place for BI to succeed:

  • The organization needs to make BI a well-known and resourced priority.
  • While the CIO has (and probably should have) primary responsibility for these kinds of efforts, the CIO is far from alone in determining overall initiative success. An understanding by all involved that BI is not an "IT project" but is, instead, a "business project" is essential.
  • Business unit leaders must be willing to work with the CIO to make sure their areas are well-represented and those leaders - or someone in their area - must have the expertise necessary to understand their data and extrapolate appropriate metrics.
  • The organization must be willing to appropriately react based on the information gleaned from the BI system. If, for example, data begins to clearly point to a drying up of the market, the organization needs to be willing to not stick its head in the sand. If this is the reaction, why use BI at all?

Obviously, there are other critical components that must be achieved for BI to succeed, but these are the organization-centric checkpoints. As we move through our own efforts, I'll continue to report in.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

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