Slowing Down, and Other Counter-Intuitive Steps to Agile BI

Are BI managers and professionals sometimes too eager to please the business? Are centralized BI efforts slowing down progress? Should BI teams address requirements before the business even asks for them? These questions may seem counter-intuitive, but Wayne Eckerson, director of research for TDWI, says that the best intentions for BI efforts in many organizations may actually result in sluggish projects, duplication of effort, and misaligned priorities between BI teams and the business.

In a recent Webcast, Eckerson talked about BI agility, exploring how BI teams need to work more closely with their organizations – not just crank out projects, but to better align BI activities with business requirements, push BI closer to the lines of business, and even determine what the business needs before the need is recognized.

“It’s very important that the team itself and the whole project is aligned with the business,” Eckerson said. “BI teams that are very aligned with the business are much more likely to be succeeding that struggling.”

Ultimately, of course, the success of any BI efforts depends on a close relationship between the BI team and the business. “This is probably motherhood and apple pie,” Eckerson admits, noting that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about achieving it. One of the essential elements of business-BI alignment, in Eckerson’s view, is to have an executive sponsor for the effort, who can provide necessary political clout. “Every successful BI solution that I’ve seen has a very committed sponsor,” he said. Attempting to build BI and data warehouses through a bottom-up, grassroots effort “is very hard and takes a long time.”

TDWI’s own research from a few years back confirmed the importance of alignment. “Every agile BI environment, and every successful BI solution that I’ve seen has a very committed sponsor,” he said. “We looked at BI initiatives that are succeeding, versus those that are struggling,” he said. “Those teams that have a very committed sponsor are almost twice as likely to be more successful rather than struggling.” An effective executive sponsor can evangelize a solution, secure and sustain funding, navigate political issues and align up the stars in the executive suites, and help prioritize projects, he said.

Eckerson outlined the following additional steps to achieving greater alignment between BI and the business:

Slow down to speed up: Eckerson invoked the tale of the race between the tortoise and the hare here, urging BI managers not to leap too fast out of the starting gate, and take more time to deliberate changes in BI applications.  “A lot of us are like the hare, in that we’re so eager to please the business that we rush headlong into projects,” he said. “We’re so eager to please, that any time they want a new report, or a new application, we roll our sleeves up to get ahead of these requests.”

A smarter approach is “to look up and across the business before you start,” he said. “Spend a little time to get a sense of what else is going on in the organization. What are the strategic objectives of the organization as a whole? What are other business units adjacent to yours doing?  Maybe you can piggyback on their efforts instead of doing another silo. You can team up and deliver something that has a greater impact with the expenditure of fewer resources.”

Distribute, not centralize, development: While many observers see consolidated and centralized development as more efficient, Eckerson suggests the opposite may be true when it comes to BI application development. A growing BI team, may, in fact, “become the obstacle, more monolithic, slowing things down,” he explains. Increasing agility may be distributing development out to business units.

Of course, this is easier said than done, Eckerson cautions. Many companies do not go let distributed development go beyond enabling business users to develop their own reports. “This is a very scary proposition for BI managers who’ve spent quite a few years building up their capabilities,” he said. “They don’t now want to let go of control, and have their hard-won efforts go to waste. They worry that the notion of ‘a single version of the truth’ could be the first thing threatened if they allow development to occur out in the business units.”

Companies are going to have to seek to maintain what could be a delicate balance between distributed and centralized development. But the impetus is clearly toward moving BI application development closer to the business units that will benefit from the applications.

If possible, address requirements before the business asks for them: Many analysts say BI teams should stay in synch with what the business needs, but Eckerson advises BI managers to stay several steps ahead and anticipate requirements long before features or functions are requested. “When you do this, you might be able to better anticipate future requirements, as well as users telling you what they want right now, rather than having to do core data model over again at some time in the future – which would save an awful lot of time and money,” he said.

Eckerson cited the example of an airline, in which the BI managers there built in features up front in anticipation of future requirements. “They built right-time delivery into their data warehouse environment up front – not because users asked for it, but because the BI team knew they eventually would.” That day of reckoning occurred after September 11, 2001, when the FBI asked all the airlines to start providing information about travel and passengers on an hourly basis. “When the request came down from executives, the airline’s BI team was ready, Eckerson related. “They just simply flipped the switch on their data warehouse, and they went from batch loading of data to real time.”

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