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Gartner BI Summit attendees still struggle with silos, business-IT disconnect

Attendees at the Gartner BI Summit said aligning the IT department with the line of business is one of the biggest challenges facing them today.

LOS ANGELES -- Industry watchwords like cloud computing, mobile BI and big data were central themes at this week’s Gartner Business Intelligence (BI) Summit but for many attendees one of the biggest obstacles facing their BI and analytics programs is an age-old problem, communication -- specifically between the IT department and the line of business.

Aligning the two was a dominant thread featured in the keynote address and discussed at sessions like “Helping IT and the Business Collaborate in Managing Data” and “The Struggle Between IT and Business User Escalates: How Can Both Win?”

But the topic was more than a conference room conversation. It could also be found in the hallways, where attendees from both groups said working together is a necessary but sometimes difficult step forward.

“The data needs have changed quickly,” said Virginia Blake, senior director of BI for New York-based Time Warner Cable. “Our IT team is dealing with the infrastructure, but we’re not as nimble as we need to be, and that has created some tension.”

A look back at past Gartner BI summits

2011: Gartner BI Summit: BI benefits lies in orchestration

2010: Gartner analyst and users discussed new technology vs. old-school strategy

2009: While a priority for most businesses, Gartner looked at how BI was falling short

2008: Sessions at the summit investigated how to embed BI within business processes

2007: The summit’s keynote speech focused on redefining BI

Customer lifecycle data is pushing a significant amount of that change, Blake said, as well as the push to understand past, present and future behavior. Before, the company relied on general customer numbers and forecasts, but the analysis stopped there. Now, analyzing lifecycle data can help connect together a series of events that drive buying and tenure-related decisions, she said. But that kind of analysis also requires infrastructure and, perhaps more important, cultural support.

“The culture isn’t stagnant, but it requires re-education,” she said. “We are moving, but we’re at the beginning of a journey, and it’s tough moving the whole bus around.”

And it requires collaboration between IT and the line of business to hash out a shared vision of where the organization is headed. That sentiment is not unlike the goal of another attendee, from RBC Ministries of Grand Rapids, Mich., which produces and distributes the well-known devotional booklet Our Daily Bread.

For more than 10 years, RBC has leaned on BI and basic reporting to help build its customer base and decrease costs. Now the nonprofit organization wants to graduate to more advanced analytics or what Stamford, Conn., research group Gartner Inc. identifies as predictive and prescriptive analytics.

“We’re gathering information to put our roadmap together,” said Dale Curtis, senior data architect for RBC Ministries.

External information, such as what Curtis gathers at the summit, will influence RBC’s vision, but so will internal information from other departments. Although Curtis did not talk about tension between departments, he stressed the importance of pooling input together that not only shows where RBC is headed, but why it needs to get there.

“Things are really changing in the BI space, and there are opportunities we’re missing out on,” he said.

While Blake and Curtis are helping to mature the BI and analytics landscape at Time Warner and RBC Ministires, others are facing common issues that continue to plague BI and analytics across the enterprise.

“Probably the biggest challenge for us is around people processes and breaking down the silos of information that have been around for a long time,” said David Price, deputy chief information officer for enterprise data strategy at New York City’s Department of Education. “[We are asking] how to change the culture between the business and IT to move forward.”

The silos prevent Price and his colleagues from asking questions against the enterprise’s entire data set to get a holistic rather than departmental perspective. For Price, the lack of data integration can be solved by implementing an enterprise data warehouse. Although New York’s DOE already has an Oracle product for this very purpose, it hasn’t been built out yet. 

“The enterprise data warehouse never existed,” he said. “And we need the business side to drive this and to present use cases on why they need this.”

Price took on his current role about five months ago, sliding over from the business side himself. While he knows the DOE is interested in more comprehensive BI and analytics, he’s also focused on master data management and data governance, which he believes should come first.

“We started doing [data governance] even though we don’t call it that,” he said. “I’ve set up working groups that bring the business and IT sides to the table to talk about data quality, to set up standards and processes.”

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