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Get execs to get it on the business value a BI program can bring

Backing from top executives can be crucial on business intelligence projects, and BI managers shouldn't shy away from the challenge of getting them on board.

Last week, I listened to a webinar by Gartner Inc. analyst Bill Hostmann on turning business intelligence into a core business competency. It was an interesting presentation, sprinkled with weighty-sounding references to things such as bridging "the white space in organizations" and establishing "metrics of success" for a BI program. Hostmann also offered some useful BI management tips as a takeaway for his listeners, along with a trenchant business rationale for investing in analytics capabilities: "Bad decisions make big headlines," he warned.

But for me, the hour-long event really came to life at the very end, when Hostmann addressed a question from a listener wanting to know how important it is to actively involve senior corporate executives in supporting and promoting a BI initiative. BI, he said, "is truly an executive-level issue," something that is "often underestimated within organizations." But whether you get leadership (and all the arm-twisting that goes with it) from the upper echelons largely depends on the luck of the draw, he added. "Executives either get it or they don't get it," he said. "And I'm not so sure you can move them from don't-get-it to get-it." With that, it was time to sign off.

Too bad, because it seemed like things were just getting started on the executive leadership issue. So, let's get back to it here. I think Hostmann's first point was spot-on: A top-down stamp of approval can be crucial to BI success. But I'm more optimistic that corporate execs who initially aren't clued in can have their eyes opened to the business benefits of BI systems, or at least to the benefits of BI-aided self-preservation.

BI friends in high places

A project at Quicken Loans offers a good example of the benefits of having a corner-office advocate in your corner. In a previous column, I wrote about the mortgage lender's self-service BI program; one of the early steps the BI team took was demonstrating an initial BI dashboard application to the company's founder and chairman, who became a big backer of the initiative. Not surprisingly, his support helped foster wider business buy-in, said Dan Jones, director of BI at Quicken Loans.

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That kind of high-level, er, encouragement certainly can pay off. A study released two years ago by the MIT Center for Digital Business attempted to quantify the business value of a data-driven corporate culture. After surveying executives at 330 U.S. companies, the center's researchers said they found that the most data-driven organizations reported 4% higher productivity rates and 6% higher profits than the rest of the businesses. Numbers like that should get the attention of business executives -- and help them see the light if they weren't BI believers to begin with. How can you argue with -- or ignore -- better business performance?

William McKnight is president of McKnight Consulting Group, which focuses on BI, data warehousing, master data management and big data deployments. When I asked McKnight whether trying to convince eyes-closed executives of BI's potential benefits is a lost cause, he suggested that BI managers change the terms of discussion. "Perhaps forget the BI and analytics labels -- senior execs need that as much as they need a hole in the head," he said. "They need business results. How are you going to deliver them? BI and analytics are means to that end. Focus on the end."

Tough sledding ahead

Even then, don't expect the going to be easy, said Wayne Eckerson, director of the BI Leadership Research unit at TechTarget Inc., which is also our parent company.

"To get recalcitrant execs on board, you have to evangelize, with a big emphasis on appealing to emotions through means such as showing them what their competitors are doing," Eckerson said. If those entreaties fall on deaf ears, he added, another strategy is waiting -- for new regulations, economic difficulties, corporate mishaps and other developments that make an even stronger case for BI and analytics investments. "And if that doesn't work, you should quit. There are greener pastures."

Or maybe you should keep on waiting, this time for changes in the executive suite. These days, corporate poobahs who don't get behind a BI program might soon find the doors to their corner offices hitting them on the way out.

Craig Stedman is executive editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at

Follow us on Twitter: @BizAnalyticsTT.

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