The military has a term for the challenges of intelligence gathering: The Fog of War. Ground-level commanders executing a campaign receive a flood of data from the ever-changing landscape of battle. They are required to make decisions and carry out strategies that can be ill-defined. The understood goal is to win the battle. But once you get past that, into where things are actually happening, it gets rather fuzzy.
The current state of business intelligence (BI) has its own Fog of War analogs. While the concept of BI is good — extract data to use in developing a business strategy — when you get down to the execution level it often falls apart.
A flood of unstructured, poorly documented data can roll in with no directed way to organize and extract the good information from the superfluous. The organization is big on saying what it wants done — increase sales, for example — but less certain of how to go about it. And training on how to use BI tools varies widely.
Now, I mean no offense by drawing parallels between BI and war. IT “battles” are not life-or-death struggles for the “soldiers” on the font lines of business. But, in a real sense, BI could be a life-or-death issue for a business when you face increasing competition, increasingly sophisticated and better informed consumers, ever-changing markets, and tightening regulatory environments — just to name a few of the issues an enterprise must face.
Moreover, Internet technology has accelerated the pace of nearly everything in business, especially profit and loss.
The pressure for organizations to respond with better targeted products, improved customer relationship management, and greater operational efficiency surely sometimes must feel like war to the business manages engaged to lead the charge. It’s no wonder BI solutions, with their promises of more accurate, reliable, timely information and analysis, have become a weapon of choice.
But before you lock and load, there should be a BI assessment, which is the first-step for a successful implementation. It is a low-cost examination of all key aspects of your organization that could influence the overall success of your BI strategy.
The BI Rationale
There are both long-term and short-term benefits to be gained from conducting a BI assessment. It’s a great way to obtain a quick and low-cost validation of your BI project’s proposed direction.
A detailed assessment can help determine whether the business and technical assumptions are accurate and whether the project team has overlooked any critical factors. Simply conducting the assessment will build awareness and support for your BI initiative.
If you are asking the right questions and involving the right people before the project is launched, they are more likely to understand your goals and assist in meeting them. Simply getting and keeping the key decision-makers informed can make a huge difference as your project proceeds; this can influence funding and staffing.
Also, the results of the assessment can be quickly acted upon. If an assessment is done correctly, it can help you identify weaknesses and roadblocks to success, which can help in developing contingency plans.
As for the long-term benefits, a BI assessment improves the chances of having positive ROI for the project because it helps identify business opportunities and goals before the project is launched.
Done correctly, the BI assessment establishes a cohesive, evolutionary vision for current and future development.
Perhaps some of the greatest benefits come from the discoveries that a company makes about itself. For example, one company discovered that their marketing, sales, and finance people all used the same basic metrics to run their portions of the business (they used different names, but it was essentially the same data).
The assessment helped them realize that these groups really needed to be collaborating more and that a data warehouse could help them communicate more effectively. This can pave the way for fundamental organizational and business-process improvements.
The best time to conduct an assessment is, of course, before you launch a costly and highly visible business intelligence project. Again, taking stock of your company’s current situation to establish if you even need a BI solution is key.
But it’s never too late. For example, if you’ve already implemented a data warehouse, an assessment is a great way to determine its ROI and discover potential expansion areas: how are people currently using the data warehouse, and are there other business opportunities that could be tapped?
BI assessments are also a great way to put a failed or struggling project back on track.
The BI assessment can be the first phase of an overall BI engagement for a company, preceding a definition phase (where requirements are fully specified) and subsequent implementation. This definition and implementation phase is usually targeted at 90-to-120 days to ensure specific business benefits are delivered quickly.
The assessment can be preceded by a clarity workshop, with a discussion of key developments in BI, some best practices, and a high level discussion of the challenges within an organization. A guided discovery can also occur, where a day or two is spent with an organization’s subject matter experts to review the current situation and strategize on the best approach for BI development.
There is no doubt a BI represents a large, complex undertaking with many, interdependent parts. As with any complex undertaking, assessment is most successful when the complex problem is divided into smaller, more manageable pieces.
BI is a long-term commitment and key business enabler. Sustained value, given that the BI solution is deployed within a continuously changing landscape of technology, organizational structure, business priorities, and marketplace realities, demands a BI solution that evolves and adapts. Periodic assessment of the BI solution and roadmap may be necessary to ensure continued health, vitality, and value.
That’s why BI assessments are not a rote process. Judgment and insight based on professional experience are required. BI assessments are inevitably dynamic and mutable by nature. There is the need to be both experienced and agile in order to provide the framework and rigor necessary to apply our experience and knowledge for rapid solution delivery.
Assessing the troops, battle plan, weapons and field of operations is the best way to burn off the Fog of War before the fighting begins.
Mark Robinson is a Business Intelligence practice manager at Greenbrier & Russel and a regular contributor to CIO Update. During his more than 20 years working with business technology, he has been a consultant for companies in the financial services, retail, manufacturing, healthcare, software and professional services sectors. He can be reached at [email protected].