Guest Commentary

A Grass-Roots Approach to Building a Successful BI Strategy

Why do so many business intelligence (BI) efforts fail to produce the results they promised? While the causes aren't always clear-cut, many BI initiatives fail because the organization lacks a clear vision of where it's headed. Often, they implement "quick-fix" solutions that meet an immediate end-user demand, but quickly become obsolete as additional end-users require more robust, enterprise-scale solutions.

Many organizations expend extensive resources to develop applications that enable users to collect, organize and deliver operational data, but are unable to implement and realize the benefits because IT lacks the necessary institutional knowledge. This problem is especially prevalent among AS/400 organizations with limited IT resources.

With such limited success, it's no wonder IT executives often have difficulty garnering support from top management when the time comes to consider new technology. In fact, Gartner Group (Stamford, Conn.) projects that without the management commitment to invest in resources and architecture costs, most data warehouse initiatives have a 70 percent chance of being halted within two years after they start.

Before embarking on any BI initiative, consider the following critical elements:

Start Small
While most organizations ultimately need to access large amounts of data, it's important to test the waters with an initial implementation that can be built upon. This approach creates near-term, attainable proof that the long-term enterprise implementation will be successful and helps to instill management confidence in the IT department. IT staff gains experience in how to conduct the implementation properly and can anticipate and prepare for future rollout issues. In addition, starting small fosters greater end-user acceptance and can be a practical way to assess the organization's evolving BI needs.

Protect Your Investment
Choose a proven integrated suite of tools that enables a modular or staged implementation approach to benefit the entire organization as its needs change and grow. In addition, think about future functionality and scalability needs. For example, many organizations start with a functional BI usage and extend the solution across other key operational areas over time.

Selecting a product suite that offers breadth - including such features as end-user modules that can accommodate ad hoc information access, enterprise reporting and analytics within a single solution - will greatly minimize the IT effort required to build, organize, secure, administer and extend data marts or an enterprisewide data warehouse. A module-based solution can foster rapid deployment by significantly simplifying end-user access to data marts or warehouses and enabling existing reports to be reused for additional applications.

Focus on Quick, Effective Results
Building slowly and realizing a fast ROI at each step will make it easier to expand the solution to more users over time. A solution that offers predefined best practice templates for key business areas can accelerate the implementation of a business unit data mart or an enterprisewide BI system, resulting in immediate end-user benefits.

Ultimately, these real-world data models can bring an organization from ground zero to effective analysis for decision making in weeks, as opposed to the months or years required with traditional means of building a BI system. They can also help organizations visualize and strategize the best way to construct and customize systems to be more flexible and effective.

Focus on a Fast Return on Your Investment
Link benchmarks to key performance indicators (KPIs) and monitor progress meticulously. By focusing on KPIs, an organization can uncover a variety of ways to increase profitability.

By moving beyond simple data access to analysis based on raw data, end users will have ready access to information that previously took days to compile manually. In addition, the information they receive from the system will be more robust, resulting in faster, more accurate decisions and quicker identification of new business opportunities. Linking these decision-making abilities to KPIs enables an organization to easily and immediately track the returns on their IT investments.

Building a successful BI strategy needn't be problematic. Take a grass roots approach: Start small, select the proper tools to facilitate the implementation for the long term, and focus on immediate results during each stage. By considering these critical steps ahead of time, an organization can facilitate a BI solution that garners the support of top management and end users alike.

Ken Holec is president and CEO of ShowCase Corp. (Rochester, Minn.), a provider of enterprisewide data warehousing and BI solutions on the AS/400.

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