Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Business Intelligence Chronicles Part 8: Star Trek returns....

Come May 8, Star Trek would return to the theaters with another saga in the journey to "boldly go where no man has gone before"

What are the bold new directions in which Business Intelligence user interface is headed ? I'll leave that question to the crystal ball gazers, tea leaf readers and the pundits amongst us.

I would focus on the direction it should be headed. And the single word answer to that is "simplification". The current and evolving paradigm of user-technology interface can be defined by a single word : "Google". Never before has the "Keep it Simple, Stupid" paradigm been so successful.

And that is the direction which BI needs to head to also.

A simple, single line search box which delivers context specific search and reporting capabilities. A sales rep types in the name of a city and links to sales report(s) for all customers in that city appear.

Also an Amazon.com kind of feature -" People who viewed this report also viewed...". Gives the user a quick and easy feel of what else s/he should be looking for. Building in "crowd intellect" into the reporting capabilities.

And what about a feature which allows a user to know who else is looking at a particular report in real-time or has viewed the report earlier (a viewing history). Combine this with interactive chat or communication capabilities and you have transformed a "report" into a "collaborative interaction".

Did I miss Geospatial analytics and GPS, how about integrating them with BI capabilities. A manager viewing a report, identifies issues with a particular customer, is able to identify the sales rep closest to that location based on the GPS capabilities of the handheld the rep is carrying and asks him/her to visit the customer.

BI has already ventured beyond Reporting & Analytics to Actionable Intelligence. Now it needs to venture even further to "Intelligent Actions". The gap,distance between the availability of intelligence and resultant action needs to be reduced by incorporating other emerging technologies into the classical BI Framework.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Business Intelligence Chronicles Part 7: The Need for Speed - Call for Special Forces or the Infantry ?

In all organizations generally two ideological camps emerge around the best way to implement BI : The first one driven essentially by the ERP implementation methodology which almost always precedes a BI implementation is process focused. It wants all specs to be nailed, users requirements documented, the last 'i' dotted and 't' crossed before development can commence. The second one is driven by the kind of close to the users analytical team methodology which had existed within user departments (like Sales or Finance) before ERP implementations made IT centralized. Here the focus is on speed. Specs are at best considered a necessary evil to be completed after the development is complete.

The first camp is considered as "Process Fiends", "Slow moving Bureaucrats" by the second camp which in turn is considered "Bunch of cowboys","Bulls in a China shop" by the first.

My personal approach is to effectively leverage the strengths of these two what appear to be conflicting ideologies. The larger BI group needs to be split into 2 components -

  • a small "Special Forces" contingent which can quickly scout new options , build prototypes, execute limited precision deployments for a selected target audience. Focus is on 4 S's : Scout, Speed, Scalable and Selective.
  • The larger "Infantry" component focuses on scaling up some of the early wins of the Special Forces component , establishes a process framework around it and launches them for mass deployment. Focus is on 3 P's: Parameters, Process, Performance.

For example , when deploying BI capabilities on a handheld device like a Blackberry, instead of getting caught up in the specification definition process, a small "Special Forces" contingent was deployed to "scout" the technology, "speedily" build a "scalable" prototype for a "selective" deployment to key stakeholders.

Subsequently the "Infantry" stepped in to scale up the "wins" of the "Special Forces" for deployment to a wider user base.They worked on the detailed specifications ("parameters"), Job Scheduling, Database Tuning ("performance"), Training documentation ("processs") etc.

Some projects executed by the "Special Forces" may never reach the "Infantry" stage and there may be others which start straight with the "Infantry"

In my opinion this two pronged approach is better, a "win-win" rather than the single pronged approach of either making your team just a Special Forces contingent (support issues when their "wins" are ramped up) or just an Infantry contingent (slow development leading to waning user interest).

What do you think ?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Business Intelligence Chronicles Part 6: The CIO giveth and the CIO taketh away

The role and success of BI in an organization depends to a large extent upon the attitude and interest of the CIO. I will characterize them as :

1. The Creators : Have a keen understanding and appreciation of the relevance of BI. Will lay great emphasis on creating strong technical underpinnings and a robust BI strategy. May not be as effective in selling BI to other groups as they are more the "Build a better mouse trap" kind of people. Other business heads like Chief Sales Officer or Chief Marketing Officer will find this kind of CIO to be very "technical" and "boring".

2. The Preservers/Enhancers : These are the showmen types. They have their ears to the ground and are attuned to what the other C-suite officers are talking about. These are the guys who will push their team to have dashboards delivered on the Blackberry or whatever the latest fad is. They do a great job in spreading awareness about BI capabilities in the organization. They are the "Build a mouse trap with the latest gizmos, and I'll find a buyer"

3.The Destroyers : BI bores them as does anything "technical". They are generally non-IT people placed in an IT leadership role because they had liberally spiked their conversation with the CEO with fancy buzzwords like Twitter, Social Networking, Facebook etc which the CEO construed to be IT (one will be surprised to know what passes off as IT in the C-suites of many corporations). They generally end up destroying BI capabilities by underfunding it and creating an environment where talented BI resources are forced to leave. These are the "Why build a mousetrap, when you can just Twitter" type.

Obviously these are generalizations. A typical CIO would be a mix of all the three attributes in different proportions.

What do you think your CIO is ? Can you think of any more kinds ?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Business Intelligence Chronicles Part 5: What They Don't Teach You At Any Business School?

What They Don't Teach You At Any Business School?

The answer is "Business Intelligence"

By that I do not mean the oxymoron phrase - given the state of the economy today and what actions led it there many people think that the words Intelligence and Business cannot be put in the same sentence together.

I mean Business Intelligence , the discipline all BI professionals are practitioners of. I made enquiries at a few Business Schools and surprisingly it is not a part of the course curriculum for the MBA program. I would have thought that given the importance this field has in the actual real-life business environment ; it's inter-disciplinary, cross-functional nature pulling data and information from various sources together; and more importantly it's role in presenting information in a manner which facilitates decision making it should have been an apt candidate for inclusion in Business School curricula.

Seems like Business Schools are more fascinated by course options like Stochastic Modelling, Pricing of Derivatives, Game Theory, etc. etc. (many of which contributed in creating the pseudo-expertise which led to the current economic fiasco) than to consider more practical, real life day to day usable options like Business Intelligence.

If more would be CEO's , business leaders of the future are introduced to "Business Intelligence" as they pursue their MBAs would we have more "Intelligent Business" ?

Maybe the onus is on us BI professionals to sound a wake up call. What do you think ?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Business Intelligence Chronicles Part 4: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Or should I say Raiders of the Lost Data. As BI professionals we are often confronted with Business requests for historical data ,to deal with product recalls or product litigation or for historical trending and for a myriad of other business reasons.

Obviously, the cubes and other reports cannot be structured to meet all these adhoc requests. They are generally structured for dealing with regular requests. For the purpose of speed and efficiency very old historical data is purged from the cubes and underlying models.

The source data warehouse too may either have the data or it may not if the data has been archived off site. In any case regular business users may not have either the security access or knowledge of the tools required to access this data.

To cut a long story short, a Data Archival and Retrieval Strategy needs to be part and parcel of any Business Intelligence Strategy. In the absence of a coherent Data Archival and Retrieval Strategy one will find a gradually deteriorating performance of the BI applications and lots of dissatisfied users groping in the dark to figure out the who ?,how?,where? of their requests for historical data..........

Well atleast till they find their BIndiana Jones !

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Business Intelligence Chronicles Part 3: All that glitters is Gold

Well, this one twists the age old adage on it's head. Yes, all that glitters is gold. And the gold I am talking about is the BI capabilities developed within organizations.

Most times companies are unwilling to share or showcase these to a wider audience. Reasons can be many :
  • Secrecy : Fears that competitors may end up acquiring competitive advantage by becoming aware of BI Strategy/capabilities.
  • Lack of confidence : underestimating own potential and fearing becoming laughing stock
  • Over confidence : "what can we learn from others"
  • Poaching : talent may get poached by others

Left to themselves most BI professionals would love to showcase their work to others, bounce ideas and seek feedback. Most push back comes from the CIO Office. Their fears in most cases are unfounded and can be mitigated/managed.

Competitive advantage/disadvantage does not depend on what your competitor/others know about your BI capabilities but how effective your own Business teams are in using those capabilities effectively and efficiently.In any case, most BI capabilities are vendor driven with everybody having equal access to them. There is an almost zero probability of being taken by surprise.

But in some cases enlightened CIOs have taken the lead in reaching out to their peers in other non-competing organizations and have the BI teams in both places engage in constructive evaluation of each others work. I would love to see more of that happening.

If the idea of showcasing to other companies is a little far fetched, an alternative is to periodically get an independent consultant to review the BI strategy/development and interact with the team and key Business users.

CIOs may feel that it may be viewed by the BI head as an encroachment on their territory.

Nothing can be farther from the truth.

The BI head would love to have the opportunity to "use" the consultant to say to the CIO what they have wanted to say for a long time but haven't been able to or have been saying for a long time and has been falling on deaf ears. (need more servers, need an upgrade, delivering "best of class" despite limited resources, Strategy/Organization needs an overhaul etc. etc.).

The Business would love this opportunity to vent and share their pet peeves about BI (Development Lead times too high, Reports/Cubes not available on time, Key BI contacts not identified etc etc ).

The CIO can look forward to an objective unbiased appraisal.

A win - win for all.

All that glitters is gold but there is no sense keeping it locked up in the vaults, rather put it out on display like in the Gold Souks of Dubai (with proper security and protection) . Or better still invite an independent appraiser to come evaluate it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Business Intelligence Chronicles Part 2: Flexible is Flexible, Fixed is Fixed, and never the twain shall meet

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"

The biggest wow factor for OLAP based BI applications has been the flexibility for the end users - slice and dice, drill up and down, build reports on the fly. The techies were the first to be floored. And next came the Analyst types. My Finance users loved the first Financial Insight we came out with. Adopted the same approach for a Sales Insight and the response was mixed. Lot of positive as well as negative feedback.

I myself went into the Field and took couple of the developers along too, conducted a few sessions with the Field Sales Force and sat through some training sessions. As I discovered first hand the response spanned 2 extremes - many of the more computer savvy sales reps were all wows and praising the flexibility of the application and it's analytical abilities as being the next best invention since sliced bread. On the other hand many others had their eyes glazed over. They were still stuck 3 steps behind where the trainer was. "Can we not get our standard XYZ report mailed to us weekly", was their refrain. The daily availability of cube based reports or ability to drill down to specifics did not impress them.

Boy, we had a big problem on hand. Substantiated that by conducting an end user survey at an upcoming Sales Meet attended by the entire sales Force. (A slight detour - the response rate for the user survey was near 100% since we conducted a lucky draw for iPods every night amongst those who submitted). Voila ! In an open ended question to list the Top 5 weaknesses and Top 5 strengths of the application - "Flexibility" found pride of place on both sides. On one side it was as Very Flexible - Easy to Use on the other side it was Too Flexible - Need Fixed reports.

Needless to add , while retaining cube based reporting for the analytical kinds ,we added "canned" reports with some routine prompts for the Sales Force. Next Sales Meet was a different story altogether. More on that later....

In this case, Fixed and Flexible did meet as we pursued a Middle Path.

Moral(s) of the story :

1. One size does not fit all.

2. Nothing beats going out into the Field and interacting with the end users. I would recommend all CIOs to mandate some end user interaction for all - including developers. Let them sit through some of the end user training sessions where their applications are deployed. The first hand feedback will be invaluable.

3. Feedback, Feedback, Feedback - the good old fashioned user survey can still come in handy at times. And nothing like an iPod or iPhone or the latest iGadget to get the completed forms back in.

4. The users is always right ! make the changes required. If not fully, meet them atleast half the way.

Search Google


Site Meter