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Five steps to unfreeze a business intelligence strategy

Experts share a roadmap for getting a stalled BI strategy back on track.

Is your enterprise business intelligence strategy stalled, with new business managers reluctant to get involved or users not adopting the BI tools? Assuming that you have the basics in place -- you established what the business wants to measure, you integrated the right data sources and you cleansed the data -- here's how experts recommend overcoming the hurdles of slow adoption:

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Make sure you have completed a proof of concept with a business group that shows the potential of what your BI implementation can do. By demonstrating what can be accomplished in one group, an organization will open the door for others to follow, rather than employing a "build it and they will come" mentality.

Too often, companies get bogged down with enterprise-wide strategies rather than rolling them out group by group. "Users aren't going to see the potential of BI or the software until you show them the possibilities," said Marcus Collins, an analyst at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group Inc.

The BI team at The Allstate Corp. in Northbrook, Ill., now has business units queuing up to be the next candidate for BI, but that wasn't always the case. To jump-start the program, IT built a dashboard for customer complaints that worked so well that it snowballed into requests from business units that want to leverage that data. Until then, the company's BusinessObjects tool wasn't being put to use very often.

"This is a learning process, and that is why high-visibility, high-impact projects are important," said Tim Acre, senior manager of BI at Allstate. "You can tell when the [BI] vision is becoming clearer … the ideas really begin to flow." Next up: a project to automate call center reporting to get closer to real-time BI.

Spend more time evangelizing the capabilities of your BI tools. "The CIO should spend 25% to 30% of his time marketing and selling, because once you are scalable as far as number of users using the applications and numbers of processes that take advantage of those applications -- without those economies of use, you don't get ROI," said Bill Hostmann, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. A "build it and they will come" mentality is a fatal flaw of many business intelligence strategies, he said.

Part of this marketing effort is admitting what didn't work. "A BI initiative is a continuous learning process with successes and failures," Collins said. "Something that organizations should do is create a learning library for users that documents those successes and failures."

Consider mixing up the IT members of the BI management team. Some IT team members may want to just build a product rather than discuss why a system is being built. Thus, they aren't helpful to business users who don't know what they want to measure or what data they want access to.

"If you have a person with an MO of 'Just give me the requirements and tell me what to build,' that person -- and this happens -- shouldn't be leading the BI initiative," Hostmann said.

Back when Hostmann was on the tech side at a large company, he ran into frustration on both sides of a BI initiative.

 "You can tell when the [BI] vision is becoming clearer … the ideas really begin to flow."
Tim Acre
senior manager of BIThe Allstate Corp.

"I kept hearing, 'Just tell me what to build' from the technology team, and 'I don't know what I don't know' [as far as information they wanted access to] from users," he said. "We were building a new product, so I couldn't tell them what I wanted; people needed to be willing to sit down with me and figure out things like what people should be measured on and how they should be compensated. I ended up changing out the management team for people who were willing to figure things out."

Often it's the team member with business acumen who gets the spot helping to set the business intelligence strategy.

"What I hear from managers of successful BI initiatives all the time is that the team members that make it a success have a hunger for answering business questions," Hostmann said. "They'd rather hire someone that knows the business and train them on how to use the technology."

Adjust the questions that you are trying to answer through the data. The recession is teaching many companies that business processes and the fundamentals of the business can change dramatically. "Business has so fundamentally changed that the information and questions you're using to manage your business are probably wrong," Hostmann said. Set up your strategy in a competency center format versus hard-wired technology that can't adjust to change, and you will be able to make changes very quickly, he said.

A competency center can also help you recognize the need for change at the technology level. Hostmann said he has seen companies fail because they are afraid to change their business intelligence strategy even after several acquisitions. "You buy company A, and then company B doesn't want to change company A," he said. "At some point they start to muddle their operations, but no one wants to change the information systems or integrate data."

Make sure your efforts are transparent. Too often the team keeps the business intelligence strategy and performance measures to themselves. But what many successful BI initiatives have in common is a large degree of transparency, Hostmann said. "One of the first things a CIO needs to do is get right in front of the team or unit, whoever is involved, and say, 'We are going to be looking at your performance. Get over it and let's move on,'" he said.

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

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