BI director needs strong blend of business, IT leadership skills

To lead successful business intelligence programs, BI managers must have strong communication skills and be grounded in both the business and IT worlds, consultant Wayne Eckerson says.

It hardly needs saying that a director of business intelligence is responsible for leading an organization's BI program. But what isn't talked about enough is the type of leadership skills that a BI director -- or a business intelligence manager with a different title -- must possess to succeed in the role.

The BI director is, or should be, the proverbial "purple person" -- not business "blue" or IT "red," but a blend of each. He or she sits between the business sponsors, division heads, business analysts and other end users on one side and the IT department with its data architects, ETL developers, database administrators, systems analysts and tech support personnel on the other.

To bridge the perennial gulf between the business and IT groups, the BI director must have a foot in both worlds, serving as an intermediary who can translate business desires for functionality into technical plans and, conversely, technical constraints into business reality. As a result, strong communication and interpersonal skills are crucial, as is an understanding of the two worlds and an ability to speak each of their languages.

On the business side, the BI director must understand the goals, drivers and processes and suggest technology solutions to business problems in terms business executives understand. On the IT side, the director must have the technical background to gain the confidence of the BI architecture and development teams, which need to know that he isn't going to overpromise results and shortchange application quality or the required project time.

Beyond that, there are a variety of tasks that the BI director has to be able to handle to lead a successful business intelligence program. The acronym SCAGGS is a handy way to remember six key BI management tasks:

Sell. Above all else, the BI director must sell and evangelize the value of BI, analytics and sound data management to all who will listen -- especially the executive sponsors who fund the BI program, but also business users of BI systems and IT managers who have to support the initiative. And selling the program is a perpetual endeavor because people come and go. If new hires are going to lend their support, they must be convinced of the business benefits of BI and analytics projects.

Coordinate. In most organizations, the BI director doesn't just manage a self-contained, corporate-level team -- she oversees a federated team with matrixed reporting responsibilities. Thus, the first task is to identify everyone in the organization who creates BI or analytics applications and unite them to create a BI Center of Excellence or other centrally managed group with the collective know-how to maximize BI investments. The director then needs to coordinate this diverse set of distributed individuals, ensure they interact appropriately and make sure the entire organization, not just a single department or division, benefits from their work.

Agree. Once the BI director identifies all "BI doers" in an organization, he needs to bring them together regularly so they can collaborate and align their activities and approaches. Ideally, the individuals who are pulled into the BI Center of Excellence will share best practices and agree on the tools, processes and methodologies for building applications and managing projects. The goal is to come up with internal standards that make everyone more productive and effective, not less so. Such standards reduce the number of decisions people need to make, allowing them to focus on what really matters -- building good applications quickly.

Govern. The BI director must also be involved in governing BI data and the development of reports based on it. There should be a separate, but aligned, data governance group that sets definitions for key data elements and manages the process of changing definitions, adding new elements to the corporate data dictionary and implementing rules on data usage. In the absence of such a committee, the BI director must fill the gap and establish data governance policies to ensure that query results, reports and BI dashboards are based on consistent data. And she needs to maintain a catalog of existing reports and their embedded data elements that report builders can use to accelerate development and minimize report chaos.

Gather. The BI director also runs a development shop and thus is in charge of gathering requirements and building applications. But there's a caveat. The director is responsible for some analytics applications -- specifically, complex or cross-functional ones that require corporate expertise to develop. All the rest are best built by business analysts and report specialists in business units who are closer to the data, people and processes involved and the problems that the applications are designed to address. These business-unit applications won't become silos, though, if the workers who build them are part of the BI Center of Excellence, and use standard methodologies and tools to ensure enterprise alignment.

Standardize. While the BI director is in charge of developing and maintaining standards for BI tools, processes and data, that shouldn't be done in the traditional, heavy-handed way. A collaborative approach is called for to define and implement the standards. Following that path puts the BI director in a good position to resolve the dialectic tensions between the business and IT, the enterprise and individual divisions, and development speed and standardized approaches.

Being the "Boz SCAGGS" of BI is a lot of work. But without the right person directing it, a BI program won't fulfill its promise or pay the expected business dividends -- and that won't be music to anyone's ears.

About the author:
Wayne Eckerson is principal consultant at Eckerson Group, a consulting firm that helps business leaders use data and technology to drive better insights and actions. His team provides information and advice on business intelligence, analytics, performance management, data governance, data warehousing and big data. Email him at [email protected].

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