Q&A: How BI Competency Centers Can Add Business Value

HP's Chris Carney explains how a business intelligence competency center can help align BI efforts and needs across the enterprise, bringing real business value.

The growing popularity of the BI Competency Center (BICC) attests to its potential for adding real business value to the organization. A properly structured BICC can help companies beleaguered by too much information to structure, align, and prioritize its BI efforts. In this interview, Chris Carney, a practice principal in the Americas Enterprise Information Solutions practice at HP, discusses how a BICC can add business value.

Carney has been in the BI and data warehousing space for over 20 years with companies including HP, Knightsbridge Solutions, and Braun Consulting. He is the author of the HP white paper Building the Business Intelligence Competency Center.

BI This Week: What are some of the biggest benefits of a BI Competency Center?

Chris Carney: The Business Intelligence Competency Center offers so many benefits that it's hard to state just a few. One of the biggest benefits is immediate delivery of quality information. The BICC focuses on getting the right technologies and resources in place to build BI structures to meet business needs. By delivering high-quality information immediately, you gain the confidence of the business to build a comprehensive BICC program.

Additionally, a governance program developed along with a BICC will establish management and analyst resources to help analyze requirements and resolve data issues. Through improved organization of data and knowledge of the BI tools, analysts will be able to spend more time analyzing data instead of gathering data.

With a BICC, companies can improve the business value of their BI programs. Through the governance process, the BICC will more clearly identify tactical and strategic business needs. By prioritizing business needs, the BICC can ensure the right needs are being met at the right time. Often business processes are operated independently throughout the organization; a BICC can bring consistent execution of the process across the organization. This will provide one common enterprise view of information to offer one version of the truth.

Consistent, accurate business-process execution is a key part to the BICC; the BICC analyst will act as a liaison between the business and IT to improve communication and coordination. Business needs can be addressed more effectively through one-on-one user sessions, user groups, and lab sessions.

Other benefits of the BICC include reduction in application and maintenance costs. Additionally, the BICC can coordinate acquisition of BI tools throughout the organization. This helps ensure more standardized use of BI tools across the organization and streamlines costs. The BICC can also help implement and enforce standards and guidelines with tighter management across the BI lifecycle to improve efficiency now and in the future.

Why do BICCs seem to be gaining in popularity? Companies today are focused on improving margins and lowering costs while still getting value out of the BI investment. The BICC can help improve the way the business uses technology and data to meet business needs. Many companies are finding inefficiencies in the way the business gathers answers to business questions; there is often a lack of agility when responding to changing business directions. The BICC integrates data, provides analytical capabilities, improves use of BI investments, reduces redundant processes, improves quality, certifies results, and lowers cost.

What are some of the biggest mistakes companies make in trying to establish a BICC?

One of the biggest mistakes is the lack of proper technical resources. The BICC gets one chance to make a good first impression and gain the confidence of the business. The right technical resources can build the proper systems for both getting data in and getting data out to meet current and future needs. After early successes, the proper level of support is required so that the system does not stall in a department.

Another mistake is not having recognition at the right level. Support needs to come from the top down to gain the full benefits of a BICC. Otherwise, the risk is that a departmental BICC will be established, leading to long-term issues.

Finally, don't overlook the cultural impact of pulling many departments into the fold for an enterprise approach to the BICC. Often, organizations will mistakenly assume there is alignment across the cross-functional BICC formation team, or at least a common understanding of core analytic functions and priorities. A BICC can be a huge culture change -- that's another reason why senior-level buy-in is critical to success.

How can companies address those challenges?

First, I suggest getting the right technical resources -- people who can get the job done in an efficient manner. This may seem obvious, but quite often we find that the resources in place have inadequate training or the wrong skill sets. It's critical to evaluate the analytical and technical abilities of current resources with respect to the business needs, data, and technical environment. With this analysis, you can then begin to bring on the right resources to fill in the gaps.

Second, it's critical to have executive-level support at the beginning. In many cases, this can require a separate front-end project to evaluate and quantify data quality problems or other inadequacies with the current system and build the BICC's return on investment. Once you have initial buy-in from the top, it's critical to first focus on projects that have the highest business priority and lowest level of effort so you can show value quickly and continue to build business support.

Finally, cultural issues, which are inevitable, can be handled through a governance function. This can promote open communication and ongoing senior-level support to break down culture barriers.

Who should lead a BICC, the technical side or the business side?

Ideally, the BICC will sit within the business, but the lead should be very technically focused. The business will set the overall direction of the BICC and will use multiple layers of the business through the governance function to prioritize need and resolve conflict.

Do you have some suggestions on convincing top management of the importance of a BICC, and the importance of funding it?

As I mentioned before, we have found with our clients that if we can complete a front-end evaluation of the business and IT needs across multiple areas, we can recommend the right direction and provide some indication of the ROI they can expect by building a BICC. You need a clear understanding of the problems, where they originate, and how a BICC can help solve them. Once the BICC is functional, it has to show fast business value to gain confidence of executives and the business lines.

Can you share an example of a company that has benefitted from a BICC?

Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) of Kansas City is an HP client and a good example of a BICC that provides strong business value. The effort started with the HP Master Plan, during which we analyzed the business, technical, and organizational issues. We helped BCBS Kansas City establish a governance organization to analyze data impact, prioritize needs, and resolve conflict. Through the governance organization, data analysts were able to provide detailed feedback on quality issues, as well as communicate with the business on requirements needs.

HP provided the technical expertise to build the foundational structure for this client's BI and data warehousing needs, as well as guide the business in understanding required outcomes of the BICC and advice in the proper governance required. In the end, BCBS Kansas City succeeded in building the BICC with an ROI of more than 300 percent due to efficiencies gained in the systems and processes. It was eventually able to decentralize the BICC back to the departments and still have the efficiencies gained by the BICC.

For this project, BCBS Kansas City won an award from Computerworld magazine, a Laureate in the health category, in the publication's 2011 honors program. Our client at Blue Cross and Blue Shield sums it up best in a video on our Web site.

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