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BI leaders need more than just technology

It takes something other than fancy tools to lead in the business intelligence arena, says TechTarget's Wayne Eckerson, pointing to the ability to direct a diverse team.

Industry pundits are only too happy to foretell the future, usually by trotting out a list of technologies that emerged a long time ago and are growing in hype if not adoption. Certainly, 2013 has its list of technology all-stars, including mobile BI, social media analytics, cloud BI and Hadoop in all its big data permutations.

Wayne Eckerson Wayne Eckerson

What they don’t talk about are BI leaders.

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Everyone likes shiny new toys, but few companies need more technology. The real challenge organizations face is harnessing what they already have -- and that requires leadership. Anyone who has run a BI team knows managing technology is easier than handling the politics involved in applying technology to business problems. That’s why there is a strong correlation between leadership and BI success.

I've been fortunate to meet many successful BI leaders over the past 20 years, and I profiled a half-dozen such people for my most recent book. Despite their technical qualifications, they chose to spend most of our interview time talking about people, processes and politics. Even as we discussed technology, the conversation kept returning to the core leadership issues of managing and motivating people up and down the organizational hierarchy.

I discovered that strong BI leaders have an uncanny ability to reconcile opposites. They know how to bring together two factions at war over the use of technology. They also navigate political minefields, including the conflict between business and IT and the divide separating corporate and departmental interests.

Bridging business and IT

In most organizations, there is a yawning gulf between business and IT. They speak different languages, report to different bosses and pursue different career paths. Businesspeople move quickly to meet new customer requirements and changing market conditions; they value creativity and change and tend to focus on the short term. The IT department focuses on delivering stable, secure and reliable information services. IT workers are cautious by nature and move slowly to avoid making mistakes that could cost the company in the long term.

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Successful BI leaders close the gap between business and IT by talking the language of both camps and interpreting between them. I call these leaders "purple people. " They are not "blue" in the business sense or IT "red" but a blend of the two. Combine blue and red and you get purple. Purple people are the key to BI success.

These IT leaders create agile, self-governing teams of businesspeople and technical experts. As part of this process, the experts are embedded in the business: They report to department heads, sit side by side with business colleagues and participate in their meetings. So instead of creating two teams, successful BI leaders assemble one crew focused on delivering business value.

Such leaders also hire top talent. But they don't just look for technical specialists; they seek other purple people, many of which they find among the business analysts, say, or product managers. They demand a certain level of technical competency, but they want people with solid business knowledge and a passion to harness data for business gain. They recognize that it's easier to train bright, motivated businesspeople to use technology than it is to teach technical specialists the business.

Out of one, many

Another challenge BI leaders face is inherent distrust from departmental managers, who fear that if they hand over power to a central team, their BI projects will never see the light of dayor will get diluted in a corporate stew of requirements. Conversely, IT worries about departmental users creating silos of information using nonstandard tools.

To address the concerns of both sides, successful leaders forge a federated approach to BI: A corporate group handles tasks that are best managed centrally, while departments manage development tasks best done in the business. This provides economies of scale and efficiency without impinging on departments’ ability to address their own information needs.

Balancing enterprise and departmental requirements calls for finesse and communication. The central team must standardize shared data and definitions and be ready to provide each department the level of support it requires to build data marts and reports. In turn, departments need to respect corporate standards and be willing to contribute their expertise and time to develop the core platform and create standards that govern BI deployments. To walk this tightrope, BI leaders need to communicate early and often to both their direct reports and members of their extended BI team. Leadership, not technology, is the key ingredient to BI success. I hope it is the new trend in 2013.

About the author:
Wayne Eckerson is principal consultant at Eckerson Group, which helps business leaders use data and technology to drive better insights and actions. His team provides information and advice on business intelligence, analytics, performance management, data governance, data warehousing and big data. Email him at

Email us at, and follow us on Twitter: @BizAnalyticsTT.

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