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Myth: Midsize companies need specialized business intelligence skills

Find out if IT workers and business users at midsize companies need specialized business intelligence skills and how businesses can leverage the BI skills they already have.

In this excerpt from the book The Shortcut Guide to Achieving Business Intelligence in Midsize Companies, written by Don Jones, readers will learn about common BI myths, including the claim that IT workers and business users at midsize companies need specialized business intelligence skills to capitalize on the benefits of BI.



Table of Contents:

* Looking at the benefits of business intelligence for midsize companies
* Myth: Midsize companies need specialized business intelligence skills
Business intelligence cost concerns shouldn’t stop midsize companies

Myth 2: BI Requires Specialized Expertise
When I talk to executives in midsize companies, I think the first and loudest objection to BI is the belief that the company is going to have to hire a cadre of specialized (and expensive) consultants to make BI happen.

That’s certainly been true in many large companies I’ve worked with, mainly because their IT staff lacked the specialized skills it takes to plan and implement a data warehouse and other BI elements. Even after the main implementation is over, consultants and trainers usually stay around for several months teaching the company’s executives, managers, and other users how to operate the BI solution—and in some cases, I’ve seen some consultants turn into full-time employees, specializing in BI and in helping the company’s users take advantage of the system. But midsize companies don’t need to deal with that.

Here’s another analogy: Consider two companies that build homes for a living. One company only builds custom homes that cost millions of dollars; the other builds homes in master-planned communities and charges a few hundred thousand dollars. Both companies build great-looking homes, and they use many of the same raw materials. They’re also held to the same building codes and other practices, and they both believe in creating a high-quality product.

When the first company begins architecting a new home, a lot of specialized tools are required. Architects have to draw every aspect of the new home, and engineers have to figure out the roof structure, load-bearing capacities, and so on. Because their customers are paying huge sums of money, every job is completely customized, and so the architects and engineers get involved every time. The company’s customers all lead wildly different lifestyles: Some want in-home recording studios, others want massive multi-car garages, and so on, so all that customization is really a big part of the business.

The second company’s customers don’t want to spend millions on a home, though. So the second company offers a few pre-designed floor plans, all of which have been architected and engineered in advance. These aren’t cookie-cutter homes; the builder understands which walls are load-bearing, for example, and can do minor customizations that don’t affect the pre-engineered structural integrity. This company’s customers don’t demand a high level of customization—for example, they simply want to pick out their cabinets and countertops. Because these customers don’t want or need designed-from-scratch homes, they save themselves the expense of an architect and engineer. It’s not that those specialized skills were never needed; they were simply only needed once, and the results of their work will be used many times, by many different customers.

This “one time engagement” of specialized expertise is what debunks this myth for midsize businesses. Let’s look at some specifics.

Complicated Deployment and Implementation
Although a pre-engineered midsize business BI solution isn’t exactly as simple as “double click Setup,” it is, as I’ve already mentioned, not a lot more complicated than that. At least, it’s certainly not as complicated as designing a whole new BI solution entirely from scratch. Deployment and implementation does start with double-clicking Setup, often installing a completely integrated, one-piece (or few-piece) solution that contains pre-built BI components such as a data warehouse, reports, and so on. Deployment and implementation is about the same complexity level as deploying and implementing any other server software, such as a database server or messaging server.

The most complex part of the implementation is often the part where you connect the BI system to your other business systems. Typically, prepackaged BI solutions offer “wizards” and other tools to help make this process easier. Prepackaged solutions may even come with built-in “connectors” for common midsize business back-end systems, such as accounting software, ERP systems, CRM systems, and so forth. So although this isn’t a “no brainer” part of the BI solution deployment, it’s certainly something that the average IT staff can handle—without highly-specialized skills.

Specialized Technology Management Skills
There’s also a concern that midsize companies don’t have the necessary skills in their existing IT staff to manage a BI solution on an ongoing basis. Fortunately, that’s not generally a concern. In fact, even some extremely large enterprises get away with very little in the way of specialized technology management skills.

There are two aspects of managing a deployed BI solution. The first is the simple, basic, day-to-day operational stuff: keeping databases tuned for performance, backing up servers, keeping servers properly patched and updated, and so forth. This kind of maintenance is something any normal IT staffer should be able to handle; the most complicated maintenance task—database tuning—is frankly something that can be more or less set up once and then scheduled to run automatically; prepackaged BI solutions typically have this built-in and are advertised as “self-maintaining.”

The other aspect of BI solution management is ongoing customization. Big companies change their patterns and practices over time, evolving their business. Some large enterprises make sweeping changes fairly often—and feel the operational pain when all their systems, including accounting, ERP, CRM, and so on, need to be updated to reflect the changes in the business model. For those companies, having specialized IT skills on staff is a cost of doing business. Plenty of huge companies, though, make relatively few changes to their basic patterns and practices. They don’t want to re-architect their accounting records, re-design their CRM solutions, or re-design their BI solution. So those companies, even though they’re quite large, often do without specialized BI skills on staff. Midsize companies also tend to avoid the kind of complex changes that require sweeping changes to their back-end systems. Remember, midsize companies often steer clear of very customized tools and processes because those customizations add complexity that is not justified—to a midsize company—in terms of its added value.

Large-Company Skills Don’t Scale Down
Some midsize companies are fortunate enough to have BI experience on-staff. Typically, it’s in the form of an IT staffer who perhaps worked on a BI project in a previous job—often with a large company. Or it might be an executive or manager who used BI solutions in past jobs. The fear, however, is that those large-company skills won’t scale down to the midsize business, meaning those existing skills are at best useless, and are at worst dangerous, as they will drive big-company decisions that aren’t appropriate for a midsize business.

In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about prepackaged BI solutions for midsize companies; it would be very easy to assume that “prepackaged” somehow means “different” or “less capable.” Not so. Prepackaged BI solutions are BI solutions; they work in much the same way that big companies’ BI solutions work, and past experience with any BI system will make someone more comfortable with any other BI system. “Prepackaged” simply means “assembled for you” rather than “build it yourself;” custom-built BI solutions are custom, not necessarily better.

So large-company skills don’t need to “scale down” to midsize businesses; those skills are valuable exactly as they are.

Specialized End-User Skills
Do BI systems require specialized end-user skills? Well…yes and no. This isn’t a case where I’m going to tell you—again—that midsize companies simply don’t need the same skills as big companies. As I outlined in the previous section, big-company BI skills work well in a midsize environment; that suggests that any BI implementation will need the same skills, so someone who doesn’t have those skills will need training. Right?

Again, yes and no. Let me fall back to the example of accounting systems. In the very earliest days of computerized accounting systems, computerized accounting was only done by big businesses. A lot of specialized skills were involved; midsize businesses stuck with pencil-and-paper ledgers. As more and more big businesses used those accounting systems, however, the folks who created those systems found ways to make them easier to use. Eventually, that resulted in prepackaged accounting systems—like today’s QuickBooks for small businesses, or Microsoft Dynamics for midsize businesses—that were easier to use and really didn’t require a lot of skills specific to the software. Any competent accountant, accompanied by a good instructional book, could figure out the software and use it effectively.

In other words, the investment by big companies made things more accessible to smaller companies. We see that again and again in the IT industry: Big companies were the first to invest in large, mainframe computers in the sixties; today, every company has several PCs. The same has held true for BI: The investment by big companies—in training their end users, in implementing BI, and so on—has made things much more accessible to end users. The first BI implementations relied on complex reports, proprietary analysis interfaces, and so on; today, Web-based dashboards and scorecards are accessible to more users. Add-ins to familiar applications such as Microsoft Excel put BI analysis in the hands of more people, with less training. Big companies started with simple, information-dense charts, like the one shown in Figure 3.1.

Figure 3.1: Detailed BI chart.

Although this type of chart is still useful today, it took the first BI users a good deal of time and effort—using specialized skills—to pull this information together into this display. Today, BI solutions for both enterprises and midsize companies can automatically produce richer displays, like the sales dashboard shown in Figure 3.2 and the scorecard shown in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.2: Sales dashboard from a BI system.

Figure 3.3: Example scorecard from a BI system.

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