Q&A: The Magic Bullet for BI and DW Success

How do organizations effectively handle the inevitable challenges in human dynamics to ensure project success?

Len Silverston's course, "There is a Magic Bullet: Leveraging Personal Relationships for BI/DW Success," is offered by at the TDWI World Conference in Chicago, May 10, 2012. We spoke with Len about his experiences with clients to learn what makes some organizations successful with their BI/DW project and what causes other enterprises to fail.

BI This Week: Are there inevitable and common types of human behavior challenges that show up on BI and DW efforts? Is so, what are they?

Len Silverston: I am privileged to be able to consult and help many different BI (Business Intelligence) and DW (data warehouse) efforts and sometimes I feel like I am in the movie Groundhog Day, repeating the same type of day with different organizations! The same common scenarios show up. Some of the most common scenarios that I have witnessed are:

Data ownership: People often view the data on their project/application as "my data" as opposed to 'this data is owned by our whole enterprise." For example, a salesperson may view customer and account data as "my data" and may be thinking, "It's nice that you are integrating customer information in the data warehouse, but I will keep 'my data' on my own machine." I refer to this data mining or data "mine"ing'! [Editor's note: See Data "Mining" Versus Data "Ours"ing by Len Silverston here.]

"I am right": I worked on one data warehousing effort where there were four expert data modelers and each modeler had very strong opinions about the "right" way to model a construct. One modeler even went so far as to say that the other modelers way would result in a "terrible design" and the project was doomed since we didn't choose his way. If in data integration efforts we try to push the one "right" solution or definition, then we are at risk of looking at things narrowly, creating conflict, increasing costs, and building solutions that fail. If, instead, we are open to various perspectives along with their pros and cons realizing that usually there is not one "right" way, then we can usually make more progress in gaining acceptance.

Enterprise versus project: There are often two viewpoints: (1) the enterprise ide viewpoint of integrating data, for example in implementing an enterprise BI/DW program and (2) a project perspective of "I need data for this specific effort." I have been involved in this scenario so many times and this often leads to conflict. Conflict is not bad in itself. However, how we handle conflict when it occurs is extremely important for success.

Trouble getting buy-in: Especially for enterprisewide DW and BI efforts, there is often trouble getting people to fully buy in to these programs and there is sometimes a perspective that these efforts are not as practical as projects designed to implement a very specific system.

Politics: When we asked many organizations why their BI/DW effort failed, the most common answer was "politics." When we asked why efforts were successful, human factors were most often mentioned as the key.

What can we do about these inevitable scenarios?

If we believe that these are truly inevitable, then why not have tools and techniques to handle them?

Now obviously personal relationships are quite complex. However, there seem to be four critical principles we have witnessed in successful implementations, namely:

  • Principle #1: Understand motivations
  • Principle #2: Have a clear, compelling, common vision
  • Principle #3: Trust is key to effective data integration
  • Principle #4: Manage conflict

How can we effectively follow these principles? There are important techniques that we can employ such as motivational modeling, trust frameworks, vision creation methods, and conflict management processes (these techniques and tools are covered in my course at the next TDWI World Conference.

What are examples of organizations that have applied human behavior principles and techniques that have lead to success in their BI/DW efforts?

A community college system implemented a hugely successful data warehouse application in a very political environment. How did they do this? They did many things effectively, but the one that really made the difference is that trust was instilled in many different ways. For example, they consistently delivered on time, within budget, and with quality and valuable solutions. People were treated with respect. There was a clear, common, compelling vision that was accepted by most people and then realized.

One of the largest travel organizations in the world implemented a very successful BI and DW platform. What were keys to their success? One thing that helped was they created a powerful vision and mission that was exciting and that people supported. Then they incrementally delivered on this vision and mission.

One health insurance provider delivered a valuable, integrated, and well-used BI/DW platform. They were very clear on the architecture and what they were building. They were also clear about the motivations and priorities of various departments and people.

A wealth management firm integrated data and was able to provide a very effective master data management as well as reporting platform. What did they do? There were many conflicts and they were able to effectively resolve these conflicts and continue working towards the vision.

A restaurant chain developed an extremely successful data warehouse and BI solution that allowed powerful reporting and data mining from many aspects of their business. A key factor in their success: how well the business and IT functions worked and collaborated, thus establishing a huge degree of teamwork and trust.

What are some mistakes have other organizations made regarding human dynamics, politics, and behaviors?

A health insurance provider invested huge amounts of money into their BI and DW program with very little success. What happened? The political environment was a major factor in the program failure. There was an underlying mistrust between departments. We witnessed peers sabotaging each other's efforts due to competition within the same organization and the lack of trust. A key mistake was not addressing the root issues that were occurring and instead continuing to focus on technology activities even as the ship was sinking.

A telecommunications company spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing their data architecture and data models for their data management, BI, and data warehousing effort. They were too focused on an idealistic picture of developing an exceptional, world-class solution, however, the amount of overhead and cost lead to loss of confidence and an abandoned effort. The scope was too large and they failed to deliver business value incrementally, thus establishing trust and ongoing sponsorship.

Will pre-established techniques really make a difference in our relationships and positively affect the outcomes of our BI and DW efforts?

Without having tools at our disposal to handle inevitable human dynamics situations on BI and DW efforts such as the ones above, we are ill prepared to deal with inevitable scenarios.

It is amazing that we can predict various types of human dynamics situations that will occur in BI and DW efforts. If we are prepared for them when they happen, it can mean the difference between success and failure. Proper application of these principles and techniques can make a huge positive difference in the outcome of our DW/BI efforts.