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...

12 comments
MDub
MDub

I believe it's time to quit suggesting business does this and I/T knows that. I/T provides business support, and BI is simply a tool in their tool box. Success with any business project requires: * Ongoing management support * The right people contributing the right contributions * A sustaining, supportive group of people to keep the implemented project "in step" with business needs (as business changes) * Educating data consumers about what BI is, and what BI is not BI is not a "fly by night" tool set, it requires love and sustenance like anything else.

moraller
moraller

Spot on. I tried a few times to add some more thoughts to this comment, but it all boils down to 'spot on'.

swdswan
swdswan

One of the reasons why Business Intelligence has a mixed track record is a poor understanding of what BI is. I applaud what Scott is doing but I would suggest it is not Business Intelligence. It is Operations Management. I suspect that what the college president sees are performance metrics from their college. If you are looking at what you people are doing then you are watching YOUR OPERATION. Business Intelligence would be watching and evaluating the COMPETITION. . As I said earlier I applaud Scott's efforts. The CIO has a major role to play and the processes appear valid. I have used some dashboard systems that displayed metrics. They worked well when the organization bought into them. I will add that staff can become 'used to' the "dashboard" and there can be a performance falloff. That is the "familiarity breeds contempt" problem. The cure is on-going top-down direction and use of the metrics (the dashboard). Good luck with your Operations Management tools. David Swan Chief Technical Officer DBiTS

No User
No User

but is, instead, a "business project" is essential. Congratulations Scott, you get it. Finally someone at TR actually understands that IT "IS" part of the business and not separate from the business. You get five Gold Stars. Thank You......

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

Could both operational and competitive data gathering fall under an overall "Business Intelligence" umbrella? Both provide key insights used to help steer the direction of the business - one strategic in nature (competition) and one much more tactical/operational (Operations Management).

patmurray12
patmurray12

There is no intelligence whatsoever in any tool. Tools and the processes deliver the means to exercise the business intelligence that exists only in the minds of the people in the businesss. Thank you for this article. I hope everyone reads and understands the importance of what you have said.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

I don't think that's quite being fair. Most IS people get it. I'd even go so far as to say most IT people get it. We've gotten it for a long time. It's the business that doesn't seem to get it. Moving information from who generates it to who needs it is a core function for every company. And the skill to identify the required information and it's path is a core skill that every company needs. Unfortunately, doing it requires discipline. And people generally aren't very good at discipline. And some people are just plain bad at discipline. And frankly, those people often react negatively to discipline and to the most common communication style of IS/IT people. Making matters worse is that most business is operational management focused not project or strategic. So thinking in terms of change or its implementation is not natural to most business people. None of which excuses IS/IT from trying to meet the business in the middle. However, it does mean we realize that all IS/IT projects are, at their core, business projects. Getting the business to recognize it is another thing. Especially when we tell them they need to apply project disciplines to it. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

No User
No User

You got it exactly backwards. I know IT folks are completely aware that "we are part of the business" and the standard business types (SBT's) minus a few exceptions don't get it.

swdswan
swdswan

The point is well made. The classic TR approach does seem to be 'justify what we do'. To be successful as a company and an IT department, IT MUST be an integrated component of the Business Strategy and the business decision-making process or it becomes a "boat" (a hole in the water into which one pours money). I recall reading a study on GM (International) IT systems. No only was there no over-arching IT policy, there was 23 major systems spread across the multi-national company. If the President of GM (International) pressed SEND on his e-mail there was no guarantee he would reach all of division heads or national GM organizations. To be successful IT Departments must integrate into the mainstream of company policy and activity. Otherwise IT becomes a replaceable part of the overall tool-kit. David Swan CTO DBiTS

No User
No User

Every other article I have ever seen from a formal TR author about this subject they "Always" present it as IT folks think they are separate from the company and need to have an SBT in charge of IT just to keep those separatists in line. More over that IT folks should "Always" be on their knees begging the SBT's to please allow us to show them that we are worthy to be in there presents. At TR "IT" is "Always" painted as having a desperate need to perpetually prove their worthiness to the all to worthy SBT's. If you have seen something else which it appears that you have then there is no point in furthering this discussion. Minus this one I have not seen one article by a formal TR author indicative otherwise.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Ummm ..... Here's the quote "Finally someone at TR actually understands that IT "IS" part of the business and not separate from the business." The keyword is "Finally" which implies that TR wasn't previously aware of it. Since this is a theme that goes back at least 30 years as I remember, I doubt that TR is not also aware of the theme ... especially since they've published articles on that theme several times in the past. Or were you being sarcastic?

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