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Sustainable practices for updating SMB business intelligence processes

In small and midsize businesses as well as larger organizations, BI systems need to be flexible and adaptable in order to able to meet changing business needs, analysts say.

According to analysts, one of the biggest challenges on business intelligence projects is keeping BI systems up to date as business needs change and new requirements emerge. Their message is straightforward: Since organizations are constantly evolving, business intelligence processes and capabilities must do so, too.

“You need to have a sustainment model,” said Jeanne Johnson, global head of consulting firm KPMG LLP’s BI group. BI systems must be aligned and integrated with new businesses and business processes, Johnson said -- and that’s where a key difference between midmarket organizations and larger enterprises can emerge, she added.

In Johnson’s view, many large organizations have difficulty with the concept of creating a flexible and agile BI architecture, whereas small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), less burdened by bureaucracy, often are better able to get their arms around the need for flexibility and incorporate it into their BI project management procedures.

To meet the goal of being able to support business changes within BI processes, though, midmarket companies should strive to compile high-quality master data and relevant metadata components, Johnson advised.

Her list of BI best practices also includes avoiding the tendency to overreach on functionality that could be hard to maintain going forward. “In this kind of process, I think ‘less is more’ is a good design principle,” she said. Focusing on key BI capabilities that can be reliably supported and sustained will produce wins -- and success usually breeds more success, Johnson noted.

Business intelligence processes: more than just a project
Offering a similar kind of watchword, Gartner Inc. analyst John Hagerty said it’s crucial to remember that a BI initiative isn’t just a single project -- it’s a program. “By definition, that means it goes on for a long period of time,” he pointed out.

Hagerty said that in talking to clients about BI project management issues and best practices, the importance of having a BI competency center (BICC) or other centralized BI team has been shown time and again. “I’ve seen the business side pushing for a bigger role and their own BI budget, and I’ve seen IT fighting back, but the point was that they had to come together and meet in the middle within the BICC,” he explained.

Keeping BI processes sustainable and up to date can also be a matter of “going viral,” according to Hagerty. Echoing Johnson’s comments, he said that one of the surest ways to garner broad support and ongoing funding for a BI deployment is to have visible successes. “If you start BI in one area, like sales and marketing, before too long other functions will come out of the woodwork looking for help with their own projects and their own requirements,” he said.

John Lucker, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLC and leader of the firm’s advanced analytics and modeling practice, said that to avoid potential business intelligence problems as a midmarket BI project moves forward, there needs to be an understanding that you’re on the equivalent of a treadmill -- and you can’t just get off when you feel like it.

Staying in the loop on improving BI processes
That requires having a requirements-gathering and BI development structure for both short-term and long-term needs, Lucker added. “You’re not creating a maintenance process but something more like a continuous improvement process,” he said. “You need to keep looping back to see if what you’re delivering is fresh and relevant.”

For Claudia Imhoff, president of consulting firm Intelligent Solutions Inc., the sustainability demands also have implications for the choice of a BI delivery model. “You need to think carefully about what elements to outsource and what elements to keep within your organization,” Imhoff said, pointing to possible options such as using Software as a Service BI applications that can be easier to deploy and upgrade than traditional BI tools are.

It isn’t always easy to keep up the effort demanded by BI programs, Lucker acknowledged. “This stuff is hard, and companies can get organizationally exhausted,” he said.

Preventing that isn’t just a matter of technical or business skills -- a sustainable midmarket BI strategy also calls for some evangelists who can champion enhancements to BI processes on ongoing basis, according to Lucker. “They need to be looking constantly for new ways to leverage insights -- because if they don’t, your competitors will,” he said.

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

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