This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.
When we speak about the scalability of business intelligence (BI) solutions, what we mean is this: How do we expose people to mission-critical information on a large scale? This challenge has existed for as long as people have worked together to bring about a desired benefit – from building viaducts in ancient Rome to running an enterprise across several continents in the 21stcentury.
In recent years, companies have come to realize that corporate decision making involves people at all levels of the organization, not just the top tier of executives and upper management. Big business decisions are the product of many small decisions made throughout the day by many employees. In order for employees to work in alignment with one another and with the company’s business goals, they need reliable information:
- Presented in the right format
- Delivered at the right time and in the right situations
- Embedded within the right business processes
That is the end result we achieve with scalable business intelligence. Here we examine the top three enablers of BI scalability: holistic data models, technology tools, and a combination of people and processes. I will conclude with some steps that enterprises should consider before implementing a business intelligence scalability project.
Holistic Data Models
The ways in which information workers use data can be grouped into three broad categories that represent different levels of demand:
- Personal – data belongs to and is used by an individual
- Team – data belongs to and is used by a group
- Corporate – data is highly reusable across the entire organization
Unfortunately, many companies currently meet that demand through independent – often ad hoc – initiatives at the lower levels of the organization. Often, employees will extract the data they need from corporate systems and store it locally on their desktop computers or on servers controlled by their departments. These islands of data are not integrated, are not managed by the company’s IT department, and are not secure.
Companies in this situation find themselves limited in their ability to turn data into a useful, actionable resource. BI scalability closes this gap by supporting the demand for data with a holistic data model that makes business rules for business intelligence consistent across all departments and consolidates corporate data in secure, integrated systems. Implementing a holistic data model ensures that all employees have access to consistent, reliable data that they can transform into information.
There are, of course, challenges to overcome. One challenge is to consolidate data in a meaningful way so that you gain a deep understanding of your customers and their needs. Another is the technical challenge of merging data that is located in hundreds of different systems.
Any consideration of business intelligence scalability from a technical perspective must take into account not only technical scalability, but also economic scalability. The licensing model and total cost of ownership (TCO) of a technology solution must support the large IT deployments necessary to deliver information efficiently to large numbers of people across the enterprise. Unfortunately, most currently available BI infrastructures focus on delivering information to a small number of users and are very expensive to deploy.
A scalable BI technology solution begins with back-end systems that support data integration from many different sources. These systems should include an enterprise-ready data warehousing platform that supports the design and management of complex data integration streams and a solid and scalable relational data platform. A BI solution from a small, niche vendor will usually not scale to meet these requirements.
On the front end, BI processes are integrated and data is consolidated and delivered to people in a single, secure, unified environment such as an intranet portal. Here, employees can work with all of the information relevant to them across the different levels of demand – personal, team, and corporate – in a common tool to develop reporting and analytics within an organization.
The presence of a single, easy-to-use tool on the front end is vitally important. Information workers today are struggling to perform efficiently in an environment where they must use multiple tools with overlapping functions. Achieving BI scalability therefore depends heavily on the usability of the technology solution you choose to deploy. Throughout numerous consultations, we have found a direct connection between user acceptance rates and ease of use for front-end tools; and user acceptance is essential to your success in this endeavor.
People and Processes
The process of turning data into actionable information is only partially the job of technology tools and holistic data models. In the end, skilled information workers supported by good business processes make it happen. I have observed time and time again that the highest-performing companies are those that value their employees as their number one asset. Good hiring standards and investments in employee development result in a company staffed with skilled people who are able to facilitate scalable BI for the enterprise’s benefit.
But what of your existing workforce, who are accustomed to the old data models, technologies and processes that limit your ability to share rich information across the enterprise? Will they provide the user acceptance you need to make business intelligence scalable? This is an area where many companies run into the greatest difficulty. When data is consolidated into an enterprise-wide solution, individuals, teams, and departments must relinquish systems and data they have managed for years. Some may view this change as a threat and resist your efforts.
It’s at this point that a company’s agility is tested. Some companies, particularly in the technology sector, change frequently – making control less of an issue. For others, the transition may be more painful. Before you embark on an initiative around BI scalability, consider whether the people in your organization are ready for such a major shift.
Processes are vital mechanisms for distributing information stored in back-end systems across the enterprise. You might consider how flawed processes in a busy call center would prevent business intelligence from scaling in a way that serves the company’s business needs. A faulty hiring process could result in operators who do not have access to customer information on certain data stores. Without this information, they can’t resolve customer issues in a timely manner, causing the business to suffer.
Another process-related issue that can affect BI scalability is the frequent disconnect between operational and financial processes. This gulf is closed by moving toward a more integrated approach that addresses business goals, revenue, income, customer satisfaction, and market penetration.
The first and most important step in implementing BI scalability is to establish a long-term strategy that is adopted and executed across all departments in the company. This strategy takes the form of a broad initiative, and it is important to establish at the outset that this is not just another technology project (although technology is an important enabler). By establishing this initiative, you are creating a key capability to manage information effectively within your organization.
The initiative should originate at least at the CIO level, although ideally it will originate at the CEO level. However, the critical success factor is to integrate your users into the process. By doing so, you enable people across the organization to feel empowered. When you address potential political obstacles, people will be more likely to embrace changes in their processes and new ways to use their data repositories. A high level of involvement helps to ensure this degree of acceptance and empowerment.
To maintain focus, create a team that is dedicated to business intelligence scalability. Establish a BI Center of Excellence that finds innovative ways to deliver information company-wide in a managed way. Identify opinion leaders throughout the company, bring them into the Center of Excellence, and develop a value proposition with them for their departments as well as the enterprise as a whole.
As your initiative progresses and your company transforms, the ability to manage business intelligence moves from being a cost center to becoming a core part of your corporate strategy. And, that dynamic perspective on business intelligence is a hallmark of every high-performing business.