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Coping with midmarket BI project management challenges: Tips for SMBs

Many small and midsize businesses don’t have a lot of money or staff resources to devote to business intelligence programs -- making sound project management processes essential, BI analysts say.

While business intelligence analysts differ on many things when it comes to managing BI projects, there is general unanimity about the value of having a centralized BI team such as a business intelligence competency center (BICC), a concept championed by Gartner Inc. and other consulting firms under various names.

Gartner analyst John Hagerty views a BICC as an essential component in any BI program, at midmarket organizations as well as larger companies, because it includes representatives from both the business and IT sides and can provide long-term guidance and control on BI processes. “Where exactly the BICC reports to is less important than the range of skills and viewpoints represented -- that’s the key to managing an effective rollout,” Hagerty said.

Claudia Imhoff, president of consulting firm Intelligent Solutions Inc. in Boulder, Colo., also sees value in the BICC concept, but she noted that midmarket companies face some unique BI project management challenges. In general, she said, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are more sensitive to two things than large organizations are: costs and the fact that they typically don’t have huge IT teams.

“The IT departments at midsize companies are usually fairly small,” Imhoff said. “They’re often very clever at getting things done more efficiently and with less expense than their larger brethren, but they have their limits.” For example, if an SMB’s IT department has 10 people and three or more of them would be needed on a BI team, that’s a substantial percentage of the total IT head count.

As a result, Imhoff recommended that midmarket organizations consider bringing in outside consultants to help staff and manage BI implementations. Consultants have the obvious advantage of not being a permanent overhead expense, as new employees hired for a BI project would be. But SMBs must be careful in how they use consulting help, she said.

Keeping an inside hand in BI project management
As much as midmarket companies may need assistance in creating and implementing a BI project plan, they also need to think strategically, according to Imhoff. “You need to be sure to keep some of your knowledge and capabilities in-house,” she said. “You need people who understand your operating system, ETL process and data quality issues, and with a consultant you could easily lose that.”

In addition, Imhoff stressed the importance of finding consulting firms that are well-versed in BI best practices, ideally from prior experience on midmarket BI projects. That’s particularly crucial because in contrast with larger companies, SMBs are likely to have consultants “more deeply embedded in your organization and on board for a longer time,” she said.

James Kobielus, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., also sees specific BI project management challenges for SMBs. For example, while large companies normally staff a project team with BI, data warehousing and data integration professionals, that combination of skills might be overkill for a midmarket organization, Kobielus said. But, he added, those skills are needed to some degree.

“If you have limited IT resources and you aren’t attempting anything too complex, it may be that one person can manage the whole thing,” Kobielus said. “If one DBA can be cross-trained on BI, that may be enough.” Finding a suitable candidate internally might not be easy, though -- and more than technical skills are needed to avoid BI problems and pitfalls.

Business users must be heavily involved in helping to define BI requirements, according to Kobielus, who said BI project managers should seek input from both casual and power users. The former group might just want to view a few reports, while the power users -- subject-matter experts in finance or human resources, for example -- are likely to be looking for the ability to do things such as drill down into data and build complex visualizations.

BI project management action item: team building
Especially in a midmarket organization, “you want to get the power users on the team to write the functional specs for your tools,” Kobielus said. In addition, he recommended that a BI team include the data “owners” -- representatives from departments such as finance and marketing. “It’s their data that will be getting loaded into the BI reports, so you need to make sure you enlist them early -- because without access to their data, BI is useless,” he said.

The data you plan to use for BI purposes also needs to be cleansed, consolidated and, if possible, put into a common data format -- a process that Kobielus said can evolve into a long-term data stewardship effort to ensure that BI tools and reports present information “in ways that don’t garble the meaning of that data downstream.”

And finally, there is the technology-selection aspect of BI project management. Midmarket companies in particular should make sure that they choose BI software that fits their needs and skill levels, Kobielus advised. “If you have an analytics-savvy organization, give them power tools,” he said. “If not, make it simple -- don’t do overkill.”

Imhoff made a similar point about selecting the right technology, in even more direct terms: “Midmarket firms don’t have time to do trial and error,” she said.

Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.

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