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How to Be a Great Business Intelligence (Internal) Customer

Following the five suggestions in this article will benefit you, your business intelligence initiative and your organization.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

It was a dark and dreary night in the office space of the business intelligence (BI) team. The internal business customers paced outside the cubicle area, tapping their feet and shaking their heads. “Are they done yet…what’s taking so long? Why can’t I get what I want, when I want it, at the price and quality I deserve? I AM the customer!”

Far too many BI initiatives struggle and/or attribute their failure to lack of internal customer engagement or sponsorship. If you don’t want to become part of that pattern, here are some tips for how YOU can get what you need from your BI team.

Tip #1: Put “skin in the game.”

We define partnership as a “relationship in which we are jointly committed to the success of whatever process (or outcome) we are in.” In the journey of business intelligence, this means partnering for the overall success of the initiative and the success of each incremental deliverable. All too often, as customers, we say we want to be in a partnership, but we remain “outside” the initiative, aloof from the day-to-day tasks, waiting to be “served.” The key is to get involved in a “real” way that reflects a real commitment.

David Zink, an Enterprise Data Warehouse Manager from Michigan, emphasizes: “Ensure that you have the right business people at the table in the first place. If you want a big win for your company, that’s critical.”

Dave Jennings from The Sports Authority says, “There’s no substitute for strong, experienced people with a good sense of humor … BI projects are stressful. Make sure that you involve the right people with the right skills that can blend together well.”

Lisa Avery from GE Access adds: “Customers cannot just throw this over the fence. Unlike other IT [information technology] projects, a BI project requires a lot of commitment from the customer. BI issues are more often business related than technology related. Business owners will have to come together to agree on terminology, define business rules, clean up dirty data, and be available to answer many clarifying questions from the BI team.”

Evon Holladay from Catholic Health Initiatives continues: “Be involved … take time to understand what is being proposed … read documents and make sure it represents your needs. Plan time on your calendar when you are fresh… Be prepared to answer the same question more than once. Think about different ways you can explain your requirements, especially using examples. Provide business context and help the people you are meeting with understand how business intelligence will help the business.”

To be a good BI customer, put your best people in the game and make sure they have real assignments. Commit your time, knowledge and help. I have reviewed far too many project plans and methodologies where all the tasks were assigned to IT resources. In every successful partnership, there are two parts: your part and “their” part. Customers, make sure you are accountable for meaningful responsibilities and not just abdicating your role. What, specifically, is your part?

Tip #2: Find out how “IT” works.

In this case, “IT” is not limited to information technology, but whatever “it” is – the requirements process, the project management process, the testing process, etc. The better you as a customer understand “it,” the more effective you will be in making “it” work for you.

Donna Corrigan from CoBank suggests: “When defining requirements, stay focused on value-added business requirements, not technology. Understand the user acceptance testing (UAT) schedule early on, and clear the calendars of UAT business staff during the UAT period.”

Bill Yock from The University of Washington says: "The most important thing a customer of a BI project should insist on is "World Class" training. Incorporate training on both the meaning of the data and the use of the business intelligence tools. Many BI projects invest too much in the ‘back room’ data loading and integration of warehouses and marts, and not enough in the ‘front door’ … educating and informing users on how to interpret, analyze and understand their information. One of our mission statements was ‘Free the Data.’ Unfortunately, once the data was free, nobody understood it. This led to lack of confidence in the ‘numbers’ and adoption of the BI tool hit a brick wall."

To be a good BI customer, figure out what “it” is and how you can proactively influence and invest time in requirements, data models, prioritization, governance, testing, training, etc. Don’t allow yourself to be so dependent that you passively sit back and wait for “IT” to make everything happen.

Tip #3: Set the bar.

Be sure to negotiate clear expectations and standards. The end result will only be as valid as your input is clear. Also, to the extent that you “dictate” everything without discussing the feasibility, you may set up the whole initiative for failure. Sometimes, you really cannot have it all when you want everything within a certain time frame, budget and scope and are unwilling to give on anything.

David Zink says: “For the BI effort to succeed, a good customer must let go of the past and look ahead. Customers need to design for future opportunities, not ‘the way they’ve always done things.’”

Lisa Avery continues: “Storyboard the type of data that you need and how you will use it. Define what factors determine the success of the project. This helps get all stakeholders on the same page. Do whatever it takes to work with IT to make sure that they understand the requirements. Request proofs of concept, mock-ups, sample data, etc., to make sure that you are sharing your vision.”

To be a good BI customer, focus on the future, state your expectations clearly, listen, negotiate reasonably and provide constant feedback. Let go of “the way things have always been done” and learn how to use the new data most effectively.

Tip #4: Stay close to the “producers.”

Project management and appropriate communication channels certainly have a place in managing the success of the BI initiative. However, as a customer, it is critical to both honor the process for scope management AND to have direct interaction with the people producing your deliverables.

Donna Corrigan suggests: “Attend training; provide examples of queries, reports and business problems to trainers ahead of time to make the training germane to real life; ask questions, be visible and available for issue resolution. Show appreciation to IT staff and business staff.”

Evon Holladay says: “Energize the team … be a champion and go out of your way to develop a passion about how business intelligence can make a difference to you, your staff, and your peers.”

Dave Jennings adds: “Frequent feedback is critical. Avoid BDUF (big design up front). Focus on smaller domain areas and design/build/demonstrate in small chunks to ensure the development team really understands your needs.”
 
To be a good BI customer, engage early; remain engaged; and invest time in direct communication, requirements, testing and training. Provide constructive feedback and take responsibility for ensuring your requirements are being understood.

Tip # 5: It’s NOT all about you.

Yes, you are important. Yes, your needs are critical. No, you are not the only internal BI customer in the enterprise. Remember those other functions and peers that make up the organization? Do you understand their needs, where there are data overlaps, where you might collaborate, how you might make it easier for IT to serve all of you? What are the best priorities for your function? What are the best priorities for the enterprise? Those may be different.

Lisa Avery suggests: “The best thing that we did was define a three-year data strategy. We then broke this strategy up into four- to six-month projects. This not only allowed us to deliver a product in a reasonable time frame, but it also allowed us to understand where we were going so that we could design the data marts appropriately. The strategy came completely from the business and not IT. Do not assume that you will be the only customer of this product. Make sure to bring in other leaders from the other functions of the business and build your solution to fit across the company. This also helps in defining business rules and will help align your data with the other business function’s data when presenting to executives.”

Matt Schwarz from Corporate Express suggests: “Build a diverse team in terms of gender, ethnicity, business backgrounds and skill sets. Almost half of my team has worked in various roles in the business (not BI-related) with an average company tenure of five plus years. These individuals bring the business knowledge and business contacts necessary to ensure that our reporting content will be useful and actionable. Only one member of our team comes with no prior business knowledge.”

To be a good BI customer, consider the big picture and build a diverse team with a broad background in technology and multiple business functions. Integrating data silos will require collaboration between functional silos.

If you incorporate these five tips, you increase your probability of success. To be a great customer of a BI initiative, get involved; take initiative; stay involved; and invest your time, energy and commitment. If not, pace the floor, remain aloof and wait for “them” to deliver to you. In either case, your return will be the result of your investment.

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