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The front line fights greater use of data analysis tools

Pushing business intelligence and analytics tools out to front-line workers can be a challenge for organizations, but there are ways to overcome the hurdles and get value from BI investments.

Three years ago, manufacturing company A.W. Chesterton wanted to push the use of data analysis tools throughout its organization. Specifically, it wanted to make sure that sales teams knew exactly how they were doing with respect to their goals. However, this endeavor ended up being more of a challenge than the data team imagined because of technical and cultural challenges.

The company had an IBM Cognos business intelligence system installed, but it wanted more flexible reports that could be generated by a larger group of users, including the sales teams themselves. But all they got from their initial business intelligence investment were static reports. The matter was complicated by the fact that A.W. Chesterton, which is based out of Massachusetts, employs sales teams in several countries across Europe and North America. This means they dealt with data generated in many different IT systems and users who expected different information in reports.

"Because we have disparate data sources, we were looking for a way to succinctly display that so [sales teams] could know where they are," said Tom Meier, vice president for information technology at A.W. Chesterton.

The company ended adopting a BI system from Targit Business Intelligence, which Meier said does a better job of pulling data together from many sources and making data available to front-line workers quickly.

However, the company still faces the challenge of getting users to adopt the tool. Meier has put some sales reports into production, but the company continues to pilot ways to get more people to use the self-service visualization piece of the tool. It's a process that can take time.

A struggle with data analysis tools

The challenge is a common one faced by many businesses today. Even while interest and awareness of the benefits of big data and analytics has never been higher, organizations struggle to find ways to make the use of analytics and their results more pervasive.

[Spreadsheet data is] a waste of time and money and makes data analysis available only on one person's desktop.
Leanne BatemanBrandeis University

Research bears out this point. For example, a 2014 survey conducted by Deloitte found that two-thirds of business executives who responded are using analytics for some task, and the majority of respondents expressed a generally favorable perception of the technology. However, only 7% of respondents said their organization had been able to deliver "value throughout the organization" with analytics.

The problem is increasingly an issue in the world of education. Speaking at Brandeis University's Analytics 360 Symposium, the school's academic program chair for the project and program management and strategic analytics program, Leanne Bateman, said colleges and universities could be doing much more to improve operations through analytics.

She blamed a highly divided network of department-specific ERP and CRM systems for higher education's lack of analytic focus, though the problem is hardly unique to education. These data siloes cause individual workers to rely too heavily on Excel spreadsheets for the analyses they may need, and the data from these spreadsheets rarely get shared throughout the organization.

"It's a waste of time and money and makes data analysis available only on one person's desktop," Bateman said. "It's a systems issue and in many cases an access issue."

The key to eliminating these siloes, she said, is fairly obvious, though not always easy to achieve: Workers need access to data and tools that are usable. Organizations should also implement strategies for sharing analytic results throughout the organization.

Pushing good ideas and data tools

Also speaking at the symposium, Dave Dietrich, head of the data science education team at EMC, said businesses need to commit more deeply to data-driven decision making. Too often he sees individuals within an organization come up with a good idea only to have it gain little traction or good technology initiatives fail because front-line workers refuse to adjust their day-to-day work routines.

To get around these problems, he said members of the executive team and project managers need to do a better job of recognizing good ideas when they see them and mandating change when the company commits to implementing new technology.

"PowerPoint is where good ideas go to die," Dietrich said. "Really, what you should be doing is integrating that method into your systems."

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at eburns@techtarget.com and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

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This was last published in April 2015

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How are you working to get more people to use data analysis tools?
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We have this challenge too. We don't really have analytics tools for our business users. We do have some business users who are fairly technical, out of necessity, and just query databases directly. This has its own problems. 
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As the article points out, workers’ “push-back” is more than a problem of access to usable data and tools. In a "complex" environment (i.e. subject to disruption, which applies increasingly to all businesses) success requires that at every level each worker (whose job can't readily be automated) needs to make judgments in the course of both doing and planning their work. To do so efficiently, the worker needs to be informed about what the business priorities are and how to make decisions, and then to be motivated and engaged, as well as having (and continually developing) appropriate skills.
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It's true, a lot of people push back on change when it comes to how they're accustomed to doing their job. It's a challenge that we still face and are trying to work through. 
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