Tips on creating a midmarket BI project plan – and keeping it on track

Most small and medium-sized businesses can’t afford the luxury of dedicated business intelligence teams, which can complicate the process of developing and implementing a BI project plan.

Many business intelligence programs take root in companies as a series of one-off projects, which means one of the first – and biggest – challenges for IT and BI managers often is to rationalize the disparate efforts into a coordinated BI project plan.

Instead of "one crisp project" that leads to a well-orchestrated rollout, there's typically "a series of projects under way in a stepping-stone fashion as a company builds out an internal BI practice," said James Kobielus, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "The project plan is often not a plan since there is no overall coordination."

And while larger companies likely have an internal BI team – or at least a group of dedicated specialists – to watch over and direct their business intelligence strategies, that's rarely the case at small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), according to Kobielus and other analysts.

At midmarket companies, a lone business or IT executive might take the lead on a BI deployment and a group of employees might be assigned to work on the project on a part-time basis. Given that the BI program usually is only one of many responsibilities on their plates, BI project schedules can take a back seat when other priorities arise.

"Even though there is a sponsor or people are brought into a project, it doesn't mean that group has time themselves to sit down and do the work," said Lyndsay Wise, president of WiseAnalytics, a Toronto-based consulting firm that focuses on midmarket BI issues.

Business intelligence project plan may call out for outside help
One common approach for orchestrating BI implementations at an enterprise level is to bring in outside consultants. That doesn't make sense for every SMB, especially when budgets are an issue – but there are potential benefits, said analysts and experienced BI practitioners.

A lot of times, I hear that companies don't have a clear set of goals. That's how things get held up or fall off track.

John Lucas, director of operations, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

For example, an external consultant might not face the same political roadblocks and pushback as an internal executive would. Moreover, consultants with business intelligence planning and deployment know-how can share BI best practices gleaned from other companies.

For SMBs choosing the outside help route, aligning with consultants versed not just in BI technology but also in the business processes of a particular industry can help organizations get the biggest bang from their consulting engagements. And negotiating consulting services from BI vendors as part of technology purchases can often be an effective way to save money.

BGF Industries Inc. has gotten a lot of mileage out of using its BI vendor's consulting services, said Bobby Hull, a systems analyst at the $200 million manufacturer of specialty fabrics in Greensboro, N.C.

"We took stock of our internal expertise and saw how urgent our need was, and then we parceled [project work] out to outsiders," Hull said. "Whenever we needed a question answered, we got it without a lot of searching on the Internet or guesswork. Getting an answer pretty quickly – that's money for me."

Zoo's BI project plan revolves around revenue goals
Having a clear and internally articulated set of goals for each phase of a BI project can also help keep it on track, said John Lucas, director of operations at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio. Lucas, who headed a BI initiative at the zoo, made it a point to have a weekly status call with IT and business representatives involved in the effort to go over strategy, key milestones and deliverables, and project changes. The end result was that the rollout was completed on schedule and under budget in October 2010, according to Lucas.

It helped, he acknowledged, that the deployment was a top priority for upper management at the zoo because the BI business case had been directly tied to expected revenue increases. "Literally, this was our No. 1 revenue objective as part of our strategic plan," Lucas said. "A lot of times, I hear that companies don't have a clear set of goals. That's how things get held up or fall off track."

Hull has a slightly more flexible take on project schedules. Given that many SMBs have limited prior experience with BI and analytics, if any, he maintained that a strict adherence to the timelines built into a BI project plan can be detrimental in the long run.

"It's a long learning curve, so you need to keep the schedule flexible," Hull said. "A lot of people make some bad decisions because they have to get this done by Tuesday. Management has to understand that it may take longer than you think."

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.

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