24.6.14

The Hitchhiker's Guide to BI and Analytics

As IT leaders, there usually comes a time when we are called to a meeting with the senior executive of the organization to discuss business analytics (BA) or business intelligence (BI). This usually occurs the week after said senior executive has been to a conference and saw a shiny dashboard with dials, graphs and 'drill down data.'

With the executive's face glowing, he or she says: "this shouldn't be hard, the speaker said [insert product name here] can connect to all our data and tell us what we need to know!" The glow soon fades when you have to explain the reality that the project may be a bit more complicated than that.

You would also be tempted to remind that same executive that you have been asking for funding for the BA/BI initiative outlined in your strategic plan, but you realize your timing might not be the most appropriate. You do have a BA/BI strategy, right? The dollar figure for your initiative was much higher than the cost of the 'dashboard' the executive was so dazzled by.  You have some work to do to bring reality into the conversation.


Let me provide a popular culture reference to help you in your discussion.
In the 1970's, Douglas Adams created a radio program, which was later published as a book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There is one much discussed plot line revolving around the number 42 being the answer to the ultimate question of life, the Universe and Everything. Indulge me as I quote a passage from Wikipedia describing the number 42.
"In the radio series and the first novel, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything from the supercomputer, called Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7 and a half million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the "beings who instructed it never actually knew what the question was." (source: Wikipedia - phrases from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). 
I'm not sure about you, but Deep Thought kind of sounds like many BI projects underway now. Expending extensive time and resources to find the answers, but not absolutely sure what questions need answering.

A side note... If Mr. Adams was writing the series today, Deep Thought may have taken much more than 7 and a half million years to crunch the data - we generate terabytes of new information every day (although I'm not sure the 'Yo' app is adding substantially to it).  But I digress.

Before you jump into a major BA or BI project, you may just want to lead the project to define the metrics - the performance and success metrics that your organization needs (hint: this is much more work than implementing the system). Once these are defined, then you should find the system that best matches your objectives.  At my last position, we provided three vendors with a sample set of data and asked them via the RFP to "show us how your system can…" It did separate the wheat from the chaff.

In my opinion, this front end work is the most crucial phase.

Years ago, I read a book that contained a phrase that captures this well. I forget the exact name of the book which took leadership principles and reworded them as if they came from Genghis Khan. It was written as a parody and is now long out of print, but this maxim will stick with me forever.

"A Chieftain who asks the wrong questions, 
gets the wrong answers."

(Gently) remind the executive to remember that before buying that shiny dashboard.

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