Tips and Tales of the IT-Business Gulf

You don’t need a roadmap to find the IT-Business Gulf. Just walk down the hall or pick up the phone; someone in an office near you can elaborate.

By Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP

Nighttime in Boston and the voices come out. During an evening session at TDWI’s World Conference in Boston, an animated gathering absorbed some handy tips for bringing IT and business people together. The discussion that followed demonstrated just how far apart those two camps remain. On one key issue, however, most could agree: Too many business people still don’t know how to use business intelligence (BI).

One attendee told of a manager who had been "screaming for better reports." When he finally got them on his desk, he demanded, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?" He was too much of the "old school" to figure them out on his own, said the apparently frustrated attendee.

The excited interest heard in that session, led by consultant Eisa Quellette, carried through the rest of that week via an informal survey of other attendees.

A sales rep from Corda Technologies, Inc., lamented: "We will talk to so many people with these wonderfully large business intelligence solutions; they’ve got tremendous amounts of data, data all over the place; and they’ll look at me with this blank stare and say, ‘We have no information!’"

Mark Albala, vice president of the consulting group CS Solutions, said he’d just finished dealing with a most-miscomprehending user. "We came in, they said, ‘We need master data management.’ We’re going down the master data management discussion, but they don’t understand what it is. They need it ’cause someone told them they need it." It wasn’t actually what they needed, Albala said.

Lamont Lockwood Jr, an enterprise architect at IBM, illustrates what he calls the "great gulf between IT and BI" with a story he heard about a company he wouldn’t name. The company had invested in a data warehouse and a BI system. Finally, the proud BI staff gave a pre-release presentation to the executives. Three days later the group was disbanded and the BI solution aborted.

Lockwood continued, "It’s going to become more of an issue with more less-sophisticated people coming into the market." They won’t understand that they can’t just turn the switch and get the right answer, he said.

Sam Hammond, an independent data architect in San Francisco, talked of just such clients. He said he had spent months developing a BI system for a group of educators. "You know what they want? They want the reports. They say, ‘Can I have that?’" Forget slicing and dicing, forget any fancy ad hoc cross tabs. They don’t want the BI, they just want canned reports."

Hammond went on: "Good business intelligence is really hard." He says that the best BI will occur when systems get to know the user in about the same way a secretary gets to know the boss.

It’s all about critical thinking skills, said Jonathan G. Koomey, a Stanford University professor and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory staff scientist. He says the problem isn’t so much about getting the right tools and hardware. "You can have the best BI system in the world designed by leading experts," he said, "and it can be perfect for that application, and provide all the information experts would ask for, and it will still fail if the users don’t have the skills of those experts."

BI’s problem is also rooted in old ways of thinking, says Koomey. He draws an analogy with the introduction of electric motors and its effect on factory layout. Not until decades after those motors became available did people start to build plants in ways that were best for production. Such might be the path for managers learning the best uses of BI.

As knowledge and understanding of BI methods and technologies increase within organizations, the dialogue between business and IT pros will improve. Step by step, the chasm will narrow. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.