Paradise Lost: Why BI Programs Fall Apart

Three reasons why organizations struggle with BI

by Patrick Bolin

For more than a decade, business intelligence (BI) has been an emerging discipline. As such, most of the articles, case studies, and other media published in the space have devoted themselves to success stories. Some are more inspiring than others, but most tell the tale of an enterprise committed to discipline, best practices, and diligent effort in the pursuit of carving meaningful information from the stone tablet of corporate data. On the other hand, as with any endeavor, BI has been around long enough to produce an equal number of failures. There are often more lessons learned in failure than success.

My goal is not to embarrass any organization but to applaud them for their efforts and express my gratitude for the opportunity to learn from previous mistakes. James Joyce once remarked, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” In this article, we’ll explore three main reasons why organizations struggle with BI, based on my own observations and experience.

Reason #1: Failing to Maintain a Champion

If there is a universal truth in the world of BI, it is that a strong sponsor can make or break a program. I have seen many organizations light up like a house afire, delivering incredible business value because they had a strong advocate in the executive ranks. These programs build incredible momentum because their sponsor demands accountability, removes roadblocks, solidifies funding, and helps sell the strategic value of a BI program. A great sponsor understands that business intelligence is about an ongoing commitment to the creation of a strategic asset through disciplined application of business knowledge, process, and technical infrastructure. It is not an information technology play.

Unfortunately, the majority of BI programs see their contribution fall off dramatically when the champion is promoted or moves on to other challenges. In many of these cases, the BI team fails to recognize the value of this relationship and tries to sponsor themselves or gain sponsorship from an IT leader. In each case I have witnessed the organization experiences a declining perception of the BI program’s value. In several instances, they have been reduced from a strategic weapon to a mere afterthought.

Reason #2: Failing to Sustain a Great Team

I have had the pleasure of being a member of a multitude of high performing BI teams. They were, almost universally, characterized by the following traits:

  • Strong leaders who understood how the business really worked
  • Architects who could build technical underpinnings that met the needs of business users
  • Developers who solve problems, ask questions, and think critically
  • Analysts who were constantly looking for ways to wow the business with new insight
  • A view that team success was more important than individual success

All of these teams were comprised of a good mix of experience and enthusiasm. The teams that sustained long runs of success were also encouraged to patiently build the next level of leaders from within their ranks.

Struggling organizations have typically fallen into one or more of the following traps:

  • Raiding leaders and architects to help other teams before their replacements were ready
  • Creating divisive environments where team members value individual recognition over team success
  • Large-scale replacement of business-savvy team members with people who don’t understand the purpose and function of the sponsor organization(s)
  • Lack of recognition of the team’s contribution to the enterprise

Although these faults and mistakes are not exclusive to the BI community, they are more common than in other IT-oriented teams. Unfortunately, many corporate leaders, including a large percentage of CIOs, don’t really understand BI. They think of it in terms of report writing, data archiving, or query writing. There is nothing more demoralizing to a BI team that is helping a company make wise multi-million dollar decisions than to be passed over for recognition, or have their talent pool drained, because their leaders don’t understand or appreciate what they do.

Reason #3: Forgetting that BI is a Program, Not a Project

A great BI organization requires an ongoing investment that will continually generate high returns. True, the ROI can be amorphous at times, because it is hard to place a value on the ability to make intelligent, informed decisions. Common sense, however, should dictate the understanding and importance of this investment. The degree of investment should vary based on what the organization can afford and where they are on the BI maturity lifecycle. Typically, investment spikes early and tails off once the core process, infrastructure, and data architecture are in place. The best organizations tend to set aside an annual investment budget for helping the business utilize the information captured by the BI system. Finally, the investment budget is best served when the sponsor and a group of business constituents serve as stewards.

Organizations that struggle take a project-by-project view of funding, which violates two key rules of supporting a program:

  • You can’t fund shared infrastructure project by project
  • Strategy, by nature, is created from a holistic point of view

Imagine driving down a highway that was funded according to the whims of individual towns. Can you imagine how inconsistent and bumpy that would be? How about using a cell phone to make an emergency phone call in an area where every home owner bought (or made) their own cell tower? How reliable would that be? Yet, that is what we do.

It is always easier, and more fun, to look back upon the past with a critical eye than predict the future with 20/20 vision. There are valuable lessons here for those who are trying to attain, sustain, or regain a great BI program. Learn from the mistakes noted here and you can avoid the most common BI project failures.

Patrick Bolin is a director of business intelligence and performance management for Hitachi Consulting. He has been an information technology executive for 15 years. He currently specializes in helping companies establish BI competency centers. He can be contacted at pbolin@hitachiconsulting.com.