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Why BI Teams Struggle: The Tipping Point of Success

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Data scientists may be in high demand these days, but business intelligence (BI) professionals still form the backbone of an organization’s data analytics strategy. Unfortunately, many BI teams struggle to succeed in their mission to deliver data and insights that generate business value. The irony is that the teams that work the hardest—who spend long hours each day and on the weekend—are often the ones most likely to struggle or fail to achieve their goals.

Knowledge Without Power

Part of the problem is that BI teams don’t have the influence and authority to achieve their mission. They are in the unenviable position of knowing what needs to be done without the power or influence to make it happen.

For example, most know the danger of data silos but can’t define and enforce enterprise standards that might eliminate them; most recognize the inefficiency of having multiple toolsets but don’t have the authority to set or enforce standards; most experience the confusion that comes from multiple definitions of key metrics and fields, but don’t have the clout to create or apply standards; and most see the costly rework that results from data entry errors and source system changes, but don’t oversee operational systems and processes. And the list goes on.

Role of CDO. Most BI teams are led by someone at the manger or director level. Frankly, people at this level—as talented and capable as they might be—just don’t have the clout to develop an enterprise data strategy. That is why we, at Eckerson Group, almost always recommend the creation of a chief data officer (CDO) role in organizations with whom we consult. Without a sponsor or ally in the executive suite, it’s impossible to create a liquid data supply chain that nourishes every functional group with real-time data.

Lack of Value

The flip side of the argument above is that BI leaders don’t have power and influence because they don’t deliver results that the business values. Many BI teams work extremely hard; they spend nights and weekends addressing a continuous backlog of tickets. Despite their herculean efforts, they are always behind and never gain the goodwill of the business. Consequently, their budgets are under threat and they are constantly asked to do more with less. It’s a vicious cycle in which a lack of positive outcomes reduces funding and resources which makes it more difficult to deliver positive outcomes. Many BI teams are caught in this cycle of growing mediocrity and irrelevance.

To add insult to injury, executives would rather invest in shiny new technologies rather than pump money into an ineffective BI team. This has been the case with Hadoop, which many executives embraced because of its low cost and potential to replace slow, expensive, outdated data warehouses. To a lesser degree, this also happened with visualization tools, such as Tableau. We now know that both Hadoop and visualization tools are not panaceas; and in many cases, they have created more problems than they solved. But that’s not to say investing in an ineffective BI team would have yielded better results.

What’s a BI Leader to Do? 

The only way for BI leaders to break out of the vicious cycle is to deliver value quickly. They can’t be stuck in an old IT mindset that places a premium on architectural purity above all else. Rather than passively take orders, they must become a strategic partner to the business and deliver a continuous string of quick wins. Once business people view the BI team as a key asset in their own success, they will shower the BI team with funds and projects.

To reach this point, there are many tricks of the trade. I wrote a blog series on psychological operations (psyops) techniques that BI leaders can use to reach the tipping point and turn the tide of adoption their way. Using one or more quick wins to buy airtime for infrastructure development is at the top of the list. Another is a business plan that shows executives the value of data and analytics solutions in business terms they understand.  Other techniques are:

  • Watermarks on reports and data sets to foster a culture of governance.
  • Cloud-based data catalogs and data preparation tools to foster grassroots governance, collaboration, and reuse.
  • Certification tests for self-service users to demonstrate their mastery of corporate data, tools, and publishing standards.
  • Grants programs and SWAT teams to kick start the use of advanced analytics (i.e. beyond reporting).
  • Internal events in which business users discuss their successes with BI and analytics.
  • A cross-functional working committee comprised of data analyst managers who oversee BI funding and infrastructure.
  • A customer relationship management (CRM) tool that a BI team can use to track its interactions with business people.
  • A data lake or data science sandbox that authorized power users (i.e., data analysts and scientists) can use to develop and run analytical experiments
  • Co-location of BI and business teams to accelerate delivery and foster greater mutual understanding.
  • Relationship managers who serve as a bridge between business and IT, serving as strategic partners who proactively suggest ideas rather than take orders. 

BI Leader as Sales Person

Ultimately, there are three ingredients in every BI success:

  • an active, engaged executive sponsor who is a master of organizational change.
  • a BI leader who speaks the language of business and knows how to sell the benefits of BI and data.
  • a track record of success from a series of quick (or long-term) wins.

Success in any business endeavor requires leadership, which is less about knowledge than communications skills and relationships. BI leaders need to consummate communications and interpersonal skills to persuade the business to invest time and money into data and analytics.

But words without deeds only gets you so far. For BI leaders to gain credibility in the eyes of the business, they must show results. Actions talk louder than words. Once the BI team has credibility from proven success, the business will listen and follow its advice. Its budget and team will expand, and it will finally get a legitimate seat at the business table.

Wayne Eckerson

Wayne Eckerson is an internationally recognized thought leader in the business intelligence and analytics field. He is a sought-after consultant and noted speaker who thinks critically, writes clearly and presents...

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