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Practical training, executive buy-in key to BI user adoption

Jeff Kelly

During any business intelligence (BI) deployment, organizations focus on the technical details – for example, determining the number of servers needed to support the system, choosing the data sources to be integrated, and deciding how often to refresh the data warehouse.

But in a BI deployment aimed at non-power users,

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addressing cultural barriers to ensure that the system is actually adopted throughout the enterprise is often just as important as mastering the technical specifications. Giving short shrift to these non-technical concerns could result in a BI manager's worst nightmare – a successfully installed, complex and expensive BI system that no one uses.

While power users, like business analysts, need little incentive to adopt BI technology, more casual BI users, such as marketing and sales associates and line-of-business managers, are a different story, said Mark Smith, CEO and executive vice president of research at Ventana Research in Pleasanton, Calif.

For adoption to truly take off among these users, it is important for IT and BI staff to educate them on how the technology will help them achieve personal and departmental business goals, Smith said. Less important to these users are the BI system's various eye-catching features that might impress a more sophisticated user.

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If a salesperson has a goal to find a certain number of new customers in a quarter, for example, the BI staff should show him or her how the new report or dashboard will help achieve that goal, rather than giving a lecture on how many different views of the data are available.

"You have to give hardcore examples," Smith said. "Don't get into a features and functions conversation. Don't bore them with a lot of gory details. Get them excited."

That strategy has worked for Sandy Yang, a BI functional analyst at a large daily newspaper in Canada. The paper uses SAP Business Information Warehouse to monitor some operational processes as well as analyze circulation and advertising rates. Yang said she and her colleague – the BI staff numbers just two – regularly hold training sessions for small groups of workers to answer questions about the system and to show how to apply it to their professional goals.

"Training is very important because [there are] a lot of things people don't understand," Yang said. "[And] we really try to do it as soon as possible [for new users]." An untrained user could get quickly frustrated with the system, she said, making it that much harder to get him or her to embrace the technology later on.

Yang used group and one-on-one training sessions to teach branch managers how SAP BW could help them monitor customer satisfaction rates regarding home delivery of the paper, for example. She showed them how to identify delivery problem areas and drill down into the data to determine whether the problems were caused by the carrier or logistical issues.

"We got a lot of good feedback from people saying, 'Hey, we had a lot of fun doing BW.' That's the kind of response we want to have," Yang said.

IT and BI workers also must take into account how workers in the organization traditionally collaborate with one another, Ventana's Smith said. "For IT folks trying to make BI useful," he said, "they have to understand culturally how teams of people like to work together."

At companies where workers are comfortable with blogs, IM and wikis and often communicate using them, for example, the BI system should incorporate those communication tools, Smith said. Especially among workers in their 20s and 30s, the so-called Facebook generation, a lack of Web 2.0 tools integrated with BI systems could definitely hurt adoption rates, he said.

How workers collaborate now is not the only concern, Smith said. With BI deployments meant to last three to five years or longer, IT and BI workers must also anticipate how communication patterns are likely to develop in the future.

"[Companies] want BI systems to last three or four or five years," he said, "so they need to think about all the things that BI has to react with inside the organization."

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel who now lectures on business management at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said he thinks the key to spurring adoption of BI technologies among casual users is for executives to lead by example.

"'Non-power users' are actually responding predictably to the incentives mandated elsewhere in the corporate hierarchy -- and if the boss isn't persuaded of the merits of intelligence, then don't expect much from the munchkins either!" Allard said in an email.

The best way to sell corporate executives, and ultimately casual users, on BI is "by real-world war-gaming and simulations, which can provoke seminal 'a-ha' moments," Allard said. "[That is] the best and maybe the only way to demonstrate the merits of real business intelligence."

At the Canadian newspaper, executives were having trouble understanding circulation reports. The data just "didn't mean anything to them," Yang said. Recognizing the importance of executive buy-in to maintain BI funding and to encourage wider adoption of the technology, Yang and her colleague set about building "a very useful, powerful dashboard to tell them the story."

But whether it's focusing on practical training, facilitating communication, or getting executives to lead by example, Yang urged IT and BI staffs to remember that promoting end-user adoption of BI systems is an ongoing process, and not an easy one at that.

"It's not going to be done in one day or two days," Yang said. "It's hard."


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