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Building a midmarket business intelligence business case: key steps

Getting broad business buy-in is vital to building a business case for a midmarket BI project, according to analysts and BI pros. And that requires getting business users engaged, they say.

Building a business intelligence business case at a midmarket company is not all that different than going through the exercise at a larger organization. The No. 1 rule, according to experienced BI professionals and industry analysts, is to get broad buy-in from business users –not just from the top executives who are pushing for or sponsoring a BI program.

To do so, the people championing investments in business intelligence strategies and capabilities have to help business managers and workers understand potential BI benefits in terms they can understand. Depending on the circumstances, that might be easier for BI proponents at some small and medium-sized businesses than it is for others.

For example, at BGF Industries Inc., a $200 million manufacturer of specialty fabrics in Greensboro, N.C., the BI business case hardly needed any translation. A very public quality glitch with one of BGF's products put the spotlight on how the problem could have been avoided with the help of better information that was readily available in the company's systems.

"Our business case for BI was simple – we had a situation of 'field failure' and the data supported it," said Bobby Hull, a systems analyst at BGF who spearheaded the company's BI project. "We learned by the spanking we took in that failure, when it was clear we could have prevented it. The cost of the BI implementation was minimal compared to the cost of that failure."

BI business case: sometimes obvious, sometimes harder to build
Hull, who had prior experience with analytics in his role as a product quality engineer, worked with peers on the business side and with BGF's IT staff to develop a strategy and BI project plan to address the quality problem. He said it was an easy sell to top management, and BI adoption has eventually broadened across more of the company's operations.

His advice to other midmarket companies is to start small on BI projects, show some success and grow from there. "You can't bite it all off at once," he said. "We looked at the [product] quality initiative as a piece of low-hanging fruit because we had an issue." It might not always be that easy to find a selling point for BI, though: "Sometimes, you have to walk around and ask people where they're spending time and dig deeper than what you see in the corner office," Hull noted.

On the other hand, if the IT staff simply proposes a project without input from the business side, a solid BI business case is likely to remain out of reach. To win its support, top management needs to be convinced that BI data can be an important competitive asset, analysts said. And a range of business users should be tapped as part of the process of gathering requirements and determining what the key business issues are and the benefits that a BI system could provide.

"Get the business engaged in the level of driving the direction of the project, including what the team should tackle next," advised William McKnight, president of McKnight Consulting Group LLC in Plano, Texas. He added that end users should also have a hand in helping to formulate the business case and return on investment calculations since they're best positioned to understand the business intelligence ROI possibilities. "IT can't do that – only the business can," McKnight said.

Putting a tangible focus on the business intelligence business case
At the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio, the strategy for gaining buy-in and building a business case for BI was to identify from the get-go what the expected business outcomes would be if the organization proceeded with the project, said John Lucas, the zoo's director of operations and leader of the BI program there.

Sometimes, you have to walk around and ask people where they're spending time.

Bobby Hull, systems analyst, BGF Industries Inc.

Lucas' team focused the initiative on improving the customer experience at the zoo, so the BI ROI would be tangible and easy to measure. In October 2010, the zoo began using a new data warehouse and BI software to drill down into food and retail sales in an effort to make better decisions around inventory control and the deployment of labor resources and to help it make more targeted offers to zoo visitors. In the months since going live, the zoo has seen a 5.9% increase in retail sales and a 30.7% bump in food sales, according to Lucas.

He attributes much of that success to having the business side drive the project, not IT. "If we allowed the IT department to set business strategy around the technology, it would never progress," Lucas said. "The No. 1 reason why we were successful is that people in marketing, finance and others steering the business understood before we even bought the software the types of things we'd be able to do."

Hull also suggests doing some simple math to help drive home the potential ROI as part of the business intelligence planning process. For example, BGF currently has about 5 million data elements in its data warehouse and has invested about $1 per data element as part of the BI project, he said. "Anything we can do with that data [generates] ROI if it can help manage the business," Hull explained. "That's one way to sell it to upper management – because where else would you invest $5 million to see no return?"

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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