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Managing user adoption makes the most of a BI solution

A user-friendly interface and superior architecture sold Meredith Corp. on a BI solution from MicroStrategy. But IT's rigorous "managed adoption" process ensured people used it.

Thinking of implementing a business intelligence (BI) solution with all the bells and widgets? A great user interface is always a plus. So is sound architecture. But to ensure your user community will happily relinquish its PDFs and spreadsheets for a more dynamic tool, "managing user adoption" is key, says Jose Lora. (Adobe Flex skills don't hurt either.)

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Lora is a BI solutions architect at Meredith Corp., the Des Moines, Iowa-based publisher of such well-known magazines as Ladies' Home Journal and Family Circle. Six years ago, the company was outsourcing the analytics and reports for its main consumer database to Acxiom Corp. when it decided its vast data stores needed to be in-house. The company bought a data warehouse from Teradata Corp. and launched a search for a BI platform. (For more on implementation, see "How one firm chose MicroStrategy for its BI solution.")

Meredith needed a BI solution to provide marketing and circulation managers with timely, standardized and detailed information about their promotions, Lora said. The existing system was made up of multiple heterogeneous databases that required intensive manual work to consolidate. The system was also inflexible and new reports required heavy support from IT resources. "In fact, there were analyses that were not possible because of the long time that it would take the staff just to put them together and because historical data was not available to the users due to the limitations of the existing system," Lora said.

'Managed adoption' weans users from PDFs to widgets

"Managing adoption was a big issue for us," said Lora, who in addition to his computer science degree has an MBA from Iowa State University. Most of the Meredith users at the time were accustomed to static PDF-based reports. "We did not want to shock them into this brand new, very dynamic Web interface."

Exploiting a comprehensive database
Planning for Meredith Corp.'s marketing campaigns starts with business intelligence (BI). The company's database has some 80 million records, including more than 3,000 data points for each name in the database.


Users employ MicroStrategy software to monitor customer behavior and understand their preferences in order to provide them with better products. A quick example: The subscription cards inserted in magazines are a costly way to fish for subscribers, and "most people take the cards and send them to the garbage directly," Lora said. BI was used to identify those people who might be amenable to receiving their subscription notices by email -- much cheaper than sending an envelope or insert card.

Wayne Eckerson, director of research at Renton, Wash.-based The Data Warehousing Institute, said IT teams that fail to manage user adoption are courting failure.

"IT teams throw a BI tool at their users and think they'll be happy because that is what they are clamoring for. In fact, it's much more nuanced than that," Eckerson said.

BI experts must understand how users absorb information, Eckerson said. In addition, how business users analyze information today will be different from what they will need tomorrow, he said, and it is incumbent on IT to "build that bridge."

Lora's group began with a set of core, comprehensive reports that would fulfill the current business needs, "but they were very basic." Most were grid reports, with a few graphs thrown in. "We tried to mimic the PDF view they were used to. That was to help in the adoption process, and it really did help, at least in the first two years."

Then the BI team realized that most of its users were running reports then exporting the data to Excel to do the "real analysis there, creating pivot tables and charts." he said. "We decided to tap the power we had in-house."

Lora's BI team cultivated "super users" in Meredith's business areas and trained them to teach others in the more advanced features of MicroStrategy. These super users were typically people who had asked for more -- more complex reports, additional metrics. "Our approach was to provide them with the basics so they could self-serve," Lora said.

The result? Today, the tool is generating 4,000 reports, well beyond what Lora's band of five BI experts could have produced. "About 95% of the reports are created by users."

Turning inexperienced BI users into avid consumers

Then, when MicroStrategy came out with its new Dynamic Enterprise Dashboards, "they all started asking for them."

Once again, Lora's group managed user adoption, starting with familiar-looking graphs, "no complex timeline charts," Lora said. "With the initial dashboard, we said, 'Here are your five reports you care about condensed to a single view.'"

IT's disciplined approach to adoption has turned inexperienced BI users into avid BI consumers. Now, users are clamoring for advanced widgets like the pretty Bubble charts that plot metric values as bubbles of different colors and sizes, relying on the BI group's expertise in Flex to make it happen, Lora said. In fact, enthusiasm for personalized widgets is so high that Lora has had to impose limits. "Once you put in these very nice widgets, they will ask for more and more. You have to manage that, too."

The dashboard's in the mail

One other nice feature that has really sped adoption, Lora added, comes courtesy of MicroStrategy. The McLean, Va.-based vendor delivers dashboards via email, which is particularly useful for an IT group like Lora's, which is "not well known across the enterprise." (See "Methods of Managing Performance".) "That is helping us sell our story."

A word of caution: The dashboard, which is implemented using Flash technology, embeds all the applications working in Flash plus the data itself, so it could even be used as an archival mechanism, Lora said. "But I don't tell my users that because these dashboards can be large in size, and that could create another problem."


Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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