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The concept behind this article was to share the experiences that I and others have had managing and implementing business intelligence (BI) and reporting solutions. To help out, I asked some former colleagues to contribute their thoughts.
The contributors are Ralph Cetrulo, Vince Benenati and Joe Rodriguez. Their bios are below:
• Ralph Cetrulo is a client partner at Knowledgent, a data and analytics consulting firm based in Warren, New Jersey and New York City. In his 20+ year career in IT consulting services, Ralph has helped many mid-size and large publishing companies implement reporting, analytics and data-driven solutions for sales, marketing, finance and operations analytics and reporting.
• Vince Benenati has worked in the publishing industry for more than 28 years, the last 18 of which have been with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). He has degrees in both business and information systems, and has held leadership positions in both Information technology and business operations. Throughout his career, Vince has implemented BI solutions involving enterprise reporting, analytics and mobile applications.
• Joe Rodriguez is a software solutions executive in the big data & analytics team at Micro Strategies, a leading systems integration firm in Parsippany, New Jersey. Joe has more than 30 years of information technology experience transcending technical, analytical, project management and business development roles. Adhering to PM methodologies and best practices, Joe has managed full lifecycle enterprise BI/reporting initiatives for mid-size to large enterprises.
I have been involved on the project management end of several large-scale BI projects, and more recently have sold analytics and reporting as part of the solutions I offer to the publishing community. This group has amassed a wealth of experience selling and implementing BI and reporting solutions.
I assembled a series of questions that I posed to my three contributors, as I wanted to know what they felt was a measure of success in a project. I often think most users only need operational data to fulfill their goals, so I wondered how much longer organizations would needlessly print reams and reams of reports.
I had heard that a Gartner ranking was proportional to the amount of money spent on them and questioned the validity of the “quadrant.” I asked about choice of tools and whether a survey or post-mortem after a project was worthwhile.
These and other questions, along with the answers, are found below.
1. What is the measure of success in a BI project?
Joe: Besides the usual meeting of original requirements, the true measure of success is its widespread adoption by the business area(s) for which it was developed, and that the business truly benefits from the capabilities that it introduces.
Ralph: Beyond the obvious measures (on-time, under budget, etc.), success is reached when users engage, see the value and ask for more. This means they have been able to assimilate and use to better perform their work. They are viewing it as a tool for improved performance.
2. What are some of the challenges?
Vince: Data sourcing and availability, efficient and accurate ETL procedures, data synchronization and business requirements definition.
Joe: Getting all stakeholders to buy in (sign off), agreeing on the goals/roadmap, individuals or teams fulfilling their project obligations on time, having cooperation instead of infighting, over/under-architecting, inadequate testing, unreasonable goals (e.g. start with low hanging fruit to lessen the risk of failure).
3. Do most people still use operational reporting?
Joe: Yes, especially in companies that have been in business for a long time, and that’s what they’re accustomed to having. Newer companies and/or where generation Y management/workers are more prevalent rely on operational reporting to a lesser extent, and more on data exploration and visualization.
Ralph: Yes, it’s the core part of most business management practices, but trends today involve the greater use of dashboards, intelligent alerts, and mobile access.
Vince: It depends on the user and their needs. Most users need operational data readily available to perform their jobs and monitor the business. Once this basic need for operational data is met, the more senior-level users embrace the idea of online analytics and data mining. However, unless the user is experienced with data analysis (e.g. via Excel or MS Access), acceptance of the BI tool is generally slow.
4. Are most customers amenable to change? Or do they cling to the same data points and KPI’s that they have been using for years?
Ralph: Progressive thinkers are open to change because they look for ways to improve business performance. Analytics gives them a deeper dive into how their business is doing, but also what changes will make a positive impact.
Joe: As time goes on, more so than even before, because they’re realizing that the world around them is changing, and they need to keep up with that in order to gain a competitive and professional edge.
5. Do you discourage users from printing reports?
Joe: I definitely discourage printing large reports when a summary view meets the purpose. Dashboards with the ability to drill into data further lessen the need for printing. Also, distribution to mobile/PDA diminishes the need for printing.
6. What would your response be to an executive who tells you, “You have installed a great system, but you didn’t teach my people how to use the data?” Do you feel this is your responsibility?
Ralph: It is the joint responsibility of both IT and the business project team members.
7. How important is the Gartner Magic Quadrant?
Joe: It’s relevant to gain an unbiased understanding of the competitive landscape. And I encourage customers to review what’s said about the various vendors and products when they’re evaluating a solution for their own needs.
Vince: Very important tool for researching solution alternatives and industry trends.
8. Do you bother to understand a customer’s business process prior to a project?
Joe: Absolutely. First, by researching the customer’s website, annual report, industry news, competition and what makes them successful. Prior to a project, workflow diagrams, as well, if they are available, the type of data they have and where it’s used in the business process, who are the users and what’s relevant or important to them at all levels in the organization. The more that’s understood, the better you’re in a position to speak their language, and it increases the probability for success.
Ralph: Understanding of the business process is key to tool selection and also business improvement.
9. What are some key objectives of a BI project? One true source of data? Ease of use of the system? Auditability? Available 24/7? Portability (device independent)? Performance?
Vince: For a recent project at HMH Trade, we needed a mobile BI solution enabling us to develop operational and analytical solutions, available anytime and anywhere. Ease of use and performance are critical success factors as well.
Joe: Self-service, ease of use, dashboard, mobile/PDA, data enrichment capabilities, extensibility, reliability, adaptability, optimal performance—these are among the most frequently identified objectives.
10. Do you think it really matters which software package is used in a BI roll-out?
Ralph: Yes, there are many factors that need to be properly evaluated prior to selecting a BI package. Most of the factors have to do with how the business community will use the software. In some instances, multiple packages may be installed. Keep in mind that the most important consideration is the data. First, it is important to understand the data, which data sources will be needed, and how each business group will see the data. After this is completely analyzed and determined, then tool selection can begin.
Vince: The software chosen should be based on various factors, including delivery platform, resources available, user competency with analytical tools, etc.
The above answers are all valid points in planning and implementing a BI solution. I have seen up close millions of dollars squandered on reporting and BI projects. The vendors turn a tidy profit, the consultants involved go on to the next project, and the executives ride off into the sunset declaring victory, leaving groups of users scratching their heads, wondering what this was all about, with very few of them actually using the tools.
My takeaways from the sessions I had with my contributors are:
• Before starting any BI project, ensure that you have clear goals and objects.
• Be able to measure success.
• Don’t try to mimic what already is; try a Greenfield approach.
• Do your research (Gartner and others).
• Ease of use (for the majority of users) is fundamental to project success.
• Consider using dashboards, visualization points and pixel perfect reports.
• Include a survey or post-mortem after the project go live to gauge customer satisfaction.
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