Formulating a BI strategy


Formulating a BI strategy for your organization can be a daunting task. Often you have folks on Linked In groups asking the question, “How do I create a BI strategy for my organization?” This can be a tricky thing to undertake. Consulting organizations have processes that evaluate the current state and desired future state or BI and propose a roadmap to get them to the future state. This doesn’t provide a complete strategy, however, though it does provide elements of it.

In order to get a strategy going, I believe you have to set the right context for it. What are you creating the strategy for? What are your goals? You might say, very generally, that your goal is to make BI successful in the organization. Or to make BI pervasive. Or something very non-specific like that. While it is possible to create a strategy to “make BI successful” in general, having more specific goals can mean a more meaningful strategy whose success is measurable. For example, you might come up with a few specific goals, such as below –

– My organization is looking to streamline cost, and so one of my goals is to minimize the cost burden of BI.

– We are a lean IT organization that cannot afford to service every BI request, so I would like to figure out how to create a strategy around self service.

– Our senior managers need quick access to critical information, and they are frustrated by the lack of it. I need a means to provide them ready access to KPIs.

– BI hasn’t really taken off in our organization. No one is excited about it. It is not considered a strategic asset. I would like to change the perception of BI and generate more excitement about it.

(Okay, this was not so specific but this is a very common problem in organizations).

So, formulate your strategy around specific goals. Goals are likely to change as an organization evolves, and therefore your BI strategy will be an evolving thing. Below are some commonly used strategies to deal with situations such as above. These are also tips to “make BI successful” in your organization, if you will.

Aligning your BI deliverables with organizational pain points and needs

This is something that my former employer, a consulting organization, taught me and this makes sense. In order to do this, you need to interview your users. While this can provide very valuable information, where it falls apart is in organizations that don’t know what they don’t know and are not very articulate about their needs. For that, a separate or complementary strategy should be adopted, such as –

Filling in gaps with industry best practices

This was an idea my current manager gave me and I loved it. If your organization cannot articulate its needs, you can propose solutions that are considered industry standard. Most organizations should have a large portion of their needs in common. While functions in the organization differ in their needs, a particular function such as Finance should have broadly similar needs across organizations. You can start with that, put it in front of your users in a “How about this” mode and see if they bite.

Making performance metrics or KPIs your cornerstone

One of the key reasons for BI’s existence is to measure the performance of organizations, often referred to as Corporate Performance Management (CPM) or Business Performance Management (BPM). Often, this gets overlooked and focus is put on very specific and mundane reports for discrete tactical needs, making BI essentially tactical in nature. Returning the focus to performance metrics will elevate the status of BI and make it more strategic. Find out if your organization uses a formal performance management approach such as the Balanced Scorecard and what metrics it is using. Find out how these metrics are delivered currently and how to deliver them better, using your data warehouse foundation. If there are gaps, propose industry standard metrics to fill them in as a starting point, and refine those.

Using Dashboards as the primary means of disseminating the KPIs

Dashboards are essentially compact visuals providing users ready access to KPIs. End users, especially senior managers, take very well to the concept of dashboards, as they tend to be very visual, making the consumption of the metrics easy. Thus, building effective dashboards should be part of every organization’s BI strategy.  Focusing on both strategic and operational needs is critical, otherwise too much focus is often paid to one side, usually the operational one, resulting in great support for the running of day-to-day operations but not enough for the making of strategic decisions. Ensuring dashboards are well designed and provide compact, visually rich views of the most critical metrics catered to each individual’s needs is critical. Enterprise wide coverage is also critical. One exercise that can help determine the set of dashboards needed for your organization is to create a matrix of needs, with the groups or functions in your organization as columns and Need Type (Operational or Strategic) as rows. Well orchestrated interviews that dig into your users’ analytic needs on both sides is required to fill in this matrix.

Creating an effective analytics portal to attract and retain users

This aspect is often overlooked. How is BI dished out? Is it a set of folders with links to reports? That is not very appealing (though it does get the job done). In a very recent project, I was exploring the idea of an analytics portal with a group who was very intent at exploring new ideas. We settled on a portal that a user would go to and directly see their dashboards, standard reports, ad-hoc analyses, BI related documents, notifications, etc. It was a customized view of each person’s analytics offered through a standard look-and-feel interface. End users loved it. You don’t want the experience to be boring and functional. A BI portal should be like a well designed web page, making it easier to get your job done.

Choosing the right technologies

If you handle large amounts of data, choosing a weak database solution will kill your BI. You need to look at Big Data platforms. Enterprise reporting platforms provided by the big vendors usually have enough functionality to meet everyone’s needs but if your organization is cost focused that may not be a very effective strategy to pick one of those. Do you need tools for self service? For OLAP style exploration? All these are considerations for coming up with a technology strategy. The biggest thing about this is that it must be aligned with the business aspect of the BI strategy. Both must occur or one or the other may fail.

Identifying the product / application roadmap

This is the other good thing that my previous consulting employer taught me. This involves coming up with a product or application roadmap to satisfy needs. After gathering needs, you need to prioritize them in importance and scope, and separate the low hanging fruit (quick wins) from the rest. I once came up with a Gartner style bubble chart that had Ease of Access to Data as one axis, and Enterprise Coverage (or something like that) as the other, with bubble size being determined on scope. I will have to dig this up and show this here. This can be a great way of representing the applications and showing which ones the quick wins are. I’ll do that shortly.

And the list goes on.

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