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BI programs should co-opt social sciences to be closer to the money

CIOs should incorporate anthropology, economics and other social sciences into their BI programs to answer burning business questions.

In an era of commoditized IT, business intelligence (BI) programs could have a real impact on the business in areas where CIOs want to be seen as a force -- revenue, market share and profits. CIOs who want to capitalize on the promise of BI, however, had better take a page from Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud or other social sciences luminaries. Next-generation BI programs will be driven by IT professionals with skills in anthropology, sociology, economics and psychology, according to Gartner Inc.

That was the challenge presented by Gartner analyst Patrick Meehan at the recent Gartner Business Intelligence Summit in Los Angeles. For a BI program to be effective, it must go beyond software and systems to become an "IT organizational competency," he said in his talk, "The Social Science of BI." And it shouldn't be a competency rooted in reports about what's happened already. Rather, it should be focused on addressing business's "burning questions that persist over time." For example:

  1. What products and markets are we not capitalizing on that we could be?
  2. How are people absorbing information, and how can we customize BI to fit their learning styles?
  3. What makes the high performers -- who on paper look like everybody else -- high performing?
  4. Whom do we need around the table to figure out what we need from business intelligence?

Meehan, it seems, knows whereof he speaks. Before Gartner, he was CIO at Phillips, dePury & Co., the luxury goods division of French holding company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA. Reporting directly to the CEO, he focused on systems and business processes that enabled rapid integration of acquisitions, expanded customer channels and changed the way market information was used in the workplace.

Take a couple of gifted people who understand technology but also understand people, have them sit side by side with [workers] and watch what they do.

If BI programs are ever going to get to the point of generating business actions, not just reports, Meehan said, IT organizations should address such questions as these, which are related to economics, psychology, anthropology and sociology, respectively: How can the business allocate scarce resources to drive the most value? How do users consume, learn and remember information? Who are the business's best performers and how do they use technology to excel? How do employees work with each other and with customers?

The methods used in anthropology and sociology -- largely observational and passive -- will give businesses deeper insights into customer and workplace behavior. Insights into the economics and psychology at play in an organization, on the other hand, can be used to drive company and employee behavior, Meehan said. Using any of these social science methods probably will mean changing the IT mind-set, he said. In this approach to BI, the left-brain skills required to engineer a BI system are still necessary. "But you also have to develop the right-brain skills, the creative side of the brain that asks, 'Why?' and 'What are the options?'" And to get rid of old biases, so-called shadow IT -- a scourge of many IT organizations -- should be looked at as a workplace phenomenon to study, learn from and leverage, he added.

IT staff as workplace anthropologists

CIO Greg Taffet, who has just launched a formal BI program at fast-growing U.S Gas & Electric Inc., also understands the value of incorporating field work into BI. He and business people at the Miami-based reseller of gas and electricity are in the process of defining the acceptable number of sales per salesperson by studying key performers. 

"We have a huge investment in the sales force and limited time for managing them. We want to be able to have a statistically significant way of saying, 'This person meets the requirement; this person is good; and with this person, we should cut our losses,'" Taffet said. As for snuffing out shadow IT, that's not his style. "If 'Joe' has figured out how to do something wonderfully, I can take that expertise and make it enterprise-wide." CIO Innovator Bill Wray, previously CIO and now chief operating officer at Blue Cross & Blue Shield (BCBS) of Rhode Island, is also a strong advocate of IT operating on the frontlines of business. In addition to his responsibilities for driving operations at BCBS of Rhode Island, he oversees its Blue TransIT program, a massive replacement of the company's core technology and analytical infrastructure. 

As part of that effort, Wray has deployed IT professionals to the business to observe how people work and how IT tools are used on problematic processes, and diagnose ways in which those processes and tools can be improved.

"My preference is to take a couple of gifted people who understand technology but also understand people, have them sit literally side by side with the person doing the [job], and watch what they do," Wray told

The aim of CIOs using the social sciences in BI is not to become experts, but to craft a BI program that ultimately is more about business effectiveness than efficiency, Gartner's Meehan said. Some CIOs will find that one social science is a better fit than the others for their BI program. But the overall emphasis of a next-generation BI program should be on front-office priorities: workplace culture, products and markets, he said.

"IT is getting closer and closer to touching the money," Meehan assured his audience of CIOs. Which can only be a good thing, right?

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

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