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Business Intelligence: Golden Rules for BI Success

In our last article, I had a bit of fun satirically encouraging you not to pursue a BI project. But the truth is, nearly every business — from the small-firm generating $100,000 in revenue to blue chip companies — can benefit from BI and should pursue it. BI success is achievable — you just have to know how!

Unfortunately, many companies fail to realise any real benefit from their BI initiatives. BI projects are seen as costly or they’re abandoned because they don’t deliver. That being said, according to Gartner, most projects fail because of people and processes.

So what makes a BI project successful? This article will focus on how organisations, big and small, with multiple stakeholders, can successfully implement BI without all of the typical headaches that many companies experience.

Set the Right Direction

It all starts with looking at your company’s long- and short-term goals. There are plenty of businesses out there who are launching BI initiatives simply because they’re being told by sites like Gartner and Harvard Business Review, they need to become more “data driven”.

While the need to become more data driven is true, some organisations rush into BI without a clear strategy. Executives are being convinced that a BI project means being data driven as an end goal. But it’s no more a goal than building an effective lead generation marketing campaign or offering employee benefits to retain workers. In other words, BI is just a tool to help you achieve the goals that are most important to your organisation. It is a journey, not a destination.

Which Colour Hat?

What colour what? Get your “Green Hat” on (Edward deBono suggested different coloured hats for different types of thinking—green is for creativity). Once you understand that BI is a journey, it’s time to get cross functional business users into a room to begin brainstorming ideas and determining what reports and analyses are important for your business. For example:

  • Do your reps need to know what was sold to each customer at this time last year so that they can make calls now to drum up business?
  • Are you collecting variance analyses by cost centre vs last year vs plan (whether you should do this at the GL account level is a different discussion!)?
  • Which customers are actually profitable (because chances are half of them are not!)?
  • What are the staff turnover and satisfaction rates by department and what can you do to improve them?
  • Who is responsible for the products that are burning a hole in your working capital and why?
  • Do you wish to know the working capital required while the business is trying to expand? 

For each of these of course, there is an underlying reason. Dump all of your ideas out during this brainstorming session. Even the most (apparently) dumb ideas can spark someone else to come up with the most amazing idea. During the discussion, there should be a facilitator asking questions to help flesh out all of the ideas. Some questions to ask might be:

  • Why is this information important and what central objective does it tie into?
  • Who will use this information and how?
  • How will this impact the decision making process?

Stephen Covey, the famous business educator, said climbing up the wrong ladder only gets us to the wrong place faster. Spend time to make sure your ladder (read: BI project) is on the right wall (read: right purpose).

Chart the Course and Use a GPS

Once you have all of your ideas down, it’s time to start filtering, prioritising and planning. Before you do this though, take a break and make it very clear to the participants that when they come back, we will move from ideation to filtering.

The first step is to filter out any ideas that aren’t realistic for your organisation due to any number of factors such as cost, information availability, or your IT infrastructure. The goal is to strike any idea where the costs are higher than the benefits.

Next, begin prioritising your ideas. In the medical field, there is a common practice called triage. This is the practice of prioritising treatment of the wounded based on severity of conditions when resources are scarce compared to the need.

You likely have a list of ideas that requires more resources than you have available. To prioritise your projects, consider the input costs — both time and money — the impact it will make on your business, and how long it will take for your company to realise the benefits of the project.

You want to pick the projects that are going to have the lowest costs, make the biggest impact, and where the results can be seen almost immediately. This is key for continuation of a BI initiative as it will cause further buy-in from other executives and managers.

You’ll then want to create a rough plan for the next 18 months to two years and bring the right team together based on your triaged list.

Now that you have the first project to pursue, you have clear objectives, you have executive buy in, you’re all keen, so get into it!

Find the Right Crew for BI Success

Remember how I said many BI projects fail because of people and processes? Building the right team is critical to the success of your initiative. And one of the most important team members is a project manager who understand business first, technology second. This way, the project remains focused on the company’s objectives.

I don’t say this to promote Infocube, but we do recommend bringing in someone from the outside. Aside from being able to help you implement your project, organisations like ours can help you prioritise your ideas. Consultants, especially those who are accountants first, will have experience from multiple businesses and have launched several BI initiatives.

Light the BI Fire!

It’s important to pick a project that doesn’t cost heaps and where the results are fast. You get traction and credibility (assuming the numbers reconcile, are delivered in a timely manner and answer the key questions posed). This will allow you to internally market the heck out of your initiative.

Eventually, you’ll hit what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “tipping point”. This is the magical moment when an idea and project begins to spread like wildfire. In BI, it’s that time when we get people lining up at the door for us to help them solve their problem.

In our next post we will share with you our internal checklist for creating great reports. It’s gold and what we use when facilitating the direction meetings above.

Now, I’ll leave you with a final question. What business problem will you try to solve with BI (here’s a tip – don’t try and boil the ocean)?

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John Vaughan

John Vaughan is a highly experienced Accountant and Consultant. He has experience in the pharmaceutical, FMCG, distribution, professional services, manufacturing and financial service industries. With over 25 years of commercial experience and 20 years working with the Cognos products, he...

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