Imhoff Keynote: The First Word in BI Is ‘Business’

BI systems can work magic for decision-support, but only if someone on the business side sponsors them!

Oh, the magpie! What a curious bird, or rara avis, as the Romans would say. Attracted to shiny things, known for something of a temper, he at once exhibits a remarkable ability to remember, and yet a penchant for distraction (usually due to some new shiny thing).

Such is the modern senior executive (especially with respect to the short attention span and fetish for shiny things). If you catch a CxO’s attention, be sure to maximize your time: it will be limited! And since such senior execs typically control the purse strings that determine whether or not business intelligence (BI) projects move forward, a blown opportunity can be costly.

Such was the upshot of Dr. Claudia Imhoff’s Thursday keynote at TDWI’s World Conference in Orlando last week. Her presentation, entitled The First Word in BI Is Business, focused on three central themes: misconceptions regarding business involvement, how to get the attention of executives, and what information technology (IT) professionals can do to help their own cause.

For the first category, Imhoff outlined and debunked four classic scenarios:

  • "I know better than they do."
  • "IT doesn’t need to understand the business."
  • "Business doesn’t need to understand IT."
  • "Just give me what I want..."

In all four of those instances, someone is falling short of the requisite mindset. The first example shows the defiance that some IT folks can demonstrate toward management, as manifested by a foolish predilection to avoid input from the business side. The second and third are variations of the same theme: no matter which side of the company you populate (business or IT), you really should gain some understanding of your counterpart. And the final excuse… who hasn’t heard that one?!

"I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it," joked Imhoff, then offered another common miscalculation: "If I build it, they will come. If I build a BI solution, people will just flock to it." Experience shows—that doesn’t work, either.

The good news, said Imhoff: "The business is very much aware of what BI can do. And they’re hungry for it! They’ve been hungry for data for years and years and years."

Once you move beyond the misconceptions, the next order of business is to secure the attention of that important business person, the sponsor for your project. Imhoff offered some insights on the characteristics of a good business sponsor:

  • They don’t simply wait around for IT to divine the solution
  • They take ownership of the process, and effect changes as needed
  • They embrace the role of steward and pay heed to data quality
  • They promote the importance of user training
  • They understand the value of strategic decision-support systems

Of course, good sponsors also show their support throughout the enterprise, sometimes working to fix problems upstream when necessary. Some things to watch out for: users who can’t articulate what they want; a sponsor who provides money but no staff, or staff but not much money; a sponsor who may not have the clout or personality to persevere.

What IT Can Do

As with most things in life, Imhoff says it’s important to be proactive in making BI projects happen. Here are some key considerations:

  • Just say no: be realistic about what can be done; don't over-commit
  • Sell it: make sure you evangelize broadly to your target audiences
  • Communicate: maintain regular dialogue with all participant groups
  • Be practical: make use of inexpensive tools like email and meetings

Incentives can also play a significant role, but only if they’re aligned with strategic objectives. "Incentives themselves need to be aligned with the usage of data and the sharing of data, and the strategic objectives," she said. "If those incentives are not lined up, there isn’t much of a chance that they’re going to use them."

Some other words of wisdom: "Fix the problems where they’re actually occurring. Maybe we need some new edits, or new training for the operational personnel," said Imhoff. And beware of the IT-to-IT relationships. "It’s important that we maintain a good relationship with other members of IT."

But most importantly: "Whatever it takes, help the business understand."

TDWI Fellowship Granted!

In a development even more rare than the continued attention of a senior executive, Dr. Claudia Imhoff received the prestigious TDWI Fellowship last week, immediately following the conclusion of her keynote address. TDWI director of education Dave Wells slipped back on-stage following her closing remarks, called her back to the podium, and unveiled a plaque proclaiming Imhoff as an official TDWI Fellow—a rare distinction given to professionals who accomplish outstanding achievements in business intelligence and data warehousing. Imhoff was visibly moved by the honor, and received a hearty standing ovation!

About the Author

Eric Kavanagh is the president of Mobius Media, a strategic communications consultancy. You can contact the author at

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