Bring your business intelligence RFP in line with the times

Gartner analyst James Richardson reveals his tips for writing a business intelligence (BI) request for proposal (RFP) that takes today's BI market realities into account.

Request for proposals (RFPs) are supposed to help companies differentiate vendors and offerings, but when it comes to business intelligence (BI), most RFPs fall short, according to Gartner.

That's because most BI RFPs today are little changed from 10 years ago, when the BI market was much less mature and much more fractured and when BI vendors had widely varying capabilities, according to James Richardson, a Gartner analyst and author of a recent report on the topic.

Today, with the BI market dominated by mega-vendors and strong pure-plays, the more generic RFPs of old, which asked questions about basic functionality, fail to identify many differences among the competing players, let alone their strengths and weaknesses. But many companies still use these outdated RFPs, the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm found.

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In a typical BI RFP, for example, SAP, IBM, Oracle and SAS would all meet the "required functionality 'out of the box' for most commonly used capabilities like reporting, dashboarding, online analytical processing and so on," Richardson wrote in his report. That information doesn't help a potential customer trying to narrow the field of BI vendors for evaluation.

For a BI RFP to be effective in today's market, Richardson said, it must take into account the mature nature of BI vendors and technology and focus on specific business requirements that are most important to the organization. Richardson offers the following advice to help companies write better RFPs that will actually achieve the goal of reducing the number of BI vendors being considered to a manageable number:

  • First, be sure to put together a large and diverse group of BI stakeholders to determine your business requirements – the actual BI elements and functionalities that will define the success of the initiative – to write the RFP. "Make sure you've got a good group of people that represent all your BI needs," Richardson said.
  • A good RFP should be short and sweet. So, after determining business requirements, organizations should weight evaluation criteria by importance and eliminate low-weighted ones altogether, he said. If BI search capabilities are not that important to the organization, for instance, don't even bother asking about them. Otherwise, scoring of less important criteria can skew the larger results of the RFP and overlook top buying priorities.
  • Be sure to avoid subjective and generic questions. If questions are too vague or open to interpretation, the vendors' answers will do little to help you differentiate them. "For example, a line item that says 'dashboard capability' is not granular enough, while one that says 'strong report caching' is too open to subjective interpretation," Richardson wrote. "The more specific and definitive you can be, the better."
  • Never take the shortcut of using vendor-supplied RFP templates. "It seems obvious, but you'd be surprised at the prevalence of this," Richardson wrote. "Using a vendor's RFP spreadsheet template may save a lot of work, but it will skew your evaluation toward their capabilities rather than your firm's needs."
  • Avoid questions about company size and staffing levels except for very small, niche vendors. While questions such as "how many staff members do you have focused on product development?" may have been important 10 years ago, when many BI companies were still upstarts, that's no longer the case, according to Richardson. Mega-vendors and the remaining top independent vendors are all of substantial size, so asking Microsoft or Oracle or SAS for their revenue figures and staff size won't help you differentiate among them anymore.
  • Finally, use the RFP as an opportunity to ask – or even demand – two or three customer references, Richardson said. This step is traditionally taken at the end of the buying process, when a vendor has been all but chosen, and consequently little of value is gained. The earlier you can talk to reference customers the better, and there's no better place to start the process than in the BI RFP.

Also remember that the RFP, while an important step, is just one of many pieces of the BI evaluation and buying process, Richardson said. In addition to a well-thought-out RFP, the process should also include demonstrations, proofs of concept and savvy contract negotiations.

"The RFP is only one component in a sound BI evaluation process," Richardson wrote. "Keep your RFP as short as you can, and focus its outcome via weighting. Remember that vendors will almost always answer 'yes, we do that' to every question posed/function detailed, and the job of the RFP is to frame questions that will minimize subjectivity and reflect your organization's BI needs."

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