Growing up with business intelligence

If you don’t know where you are, how can you decide where you want to be?

July 5, 2010

If you don’t know where you are, how can you decide where you want to be?

“That’s the question organisations should ask themselves before embarking on a business intelligence initiative,” says Sean Paine, director of EnterpriseWorx.

“Business intelligence is a process, not a destination. It is open to ongoing fine-tuning that allows management to obtain more and more insights from their information assets, so as to create an agile organisation equipped to succeed in today’s competitive environment.

“However, the first step is to establish where you are on the BI maturity curve.”

The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) postulates that most organisations go through six stages as they evolve their BI environment from a cost centre to a strategic resource that drives the business.

The BI process moves from management reporting (pre-natal), through spreadmarts (infant), data marts (child), data warehouses (teenage), enterprise data warehouse (adult) and, finally, analytic services (sage).

In the early stages of BI, information is primarily exploited by power users equipped with spreadsheets who exert tremendous control over the content and dissemination of information.

Most organisations are currently in ‘BI adolescence’, marked by unstable funding, mediocre usage and the continued presence of spreadmarts – the tendency that spreadsheets have to ‘run amok’ in organisations. Typically a spreadmart is created by individuals at different times using different data sources and rules for defining metrics, creating a fractured view of the enterprise.

“This haphazard data collection can lead to incorrect conclusions and decisions that are way off the mark,” says Paine. “At this stage, the cost of BI probably outweighs the benefits.”

According to TDWI, the situation changes rapidly as dashboards and scorecards graphically monitor progress towards strategic goals, and users move away from analysing historical trends and begin to work proactively to solve problems and optimise performance. The business value of BI grows as the organisation consolidates silo information, delivers a consistent view of information and empowers users with BI tools that conform to the way they work.

“At the start of any BI programme, it is important to get an idea of where your organisation is on the BI maturity timeline,” says Paine. “For the organisation to progress you need to know where to aim. BI is a journey, and you have to advance gradually. If you’re at the infancy stage, don’t immediately aim for sage status – it’s too much of a stretch.

“For the organisation to advance to BI maturity, you need a structured approach. The establishment of a business intelligence competency centre (BICC) is the best way of achieving this.”

The BICC is a cross-functional team, representing business and IT disciplines. It addresses the strategic objectives of BI in the organisation, and develops a framework for moving through the various phases of BI to maturity.

“The main roles of the BICC are to obtain executive sponsorship and to ensure that project governance is in place, together with a standardised approach to project management,” says Paine. “Another of its roles is to promote communication across different departments in the organisation to prevent the creation of new BI silos. Unless these fundamental building blocks are in place, the BI initiative is unlikely to succeed.”

BI programme management includes data integration, governance and stewardship, co-ordination of internal processes, training and development programmes and change management, and, ultimately, delivering the information that the business needs.

“The BICC is also charged with supporting and promoting BI across the company,” says Paine. “Motivation in the organisation is just as important as it is on the sports field. People need encouragement to understand the value BI will generate, why management is investing in it, and why they should support it.

“An integrated approach to technology and processes as well as organisational culture and people is essential for a BI initiative to develop to maturity as an enterprise resource that delivers business insights and value.”