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Embarking upon a business intelligence initiative is a major decision for an organization. It involves the coordination and cooperation of technical professionals, functional experts and the organization's leadership, all aligned with a common purpose. In this article, we take a look at the process of getting a business intelligence effort off the ground.

Enlisting Executive Support

As you're about to discover, business intelligence efforts often become political battlegrounds. Functional units may not wish to participate because they fear sharing "their" data with others in the organization. On the flip side, you might have multiple units competing to have their needs met first. Controversy may also arise over the definitions of shared business terms, methods of calculating business metrics or other functional issues.

Successfully overcoming these challenges requires strong executive support and guidance. The most successful business intelligence efforts are sponsored by a very senior executive, preferably one who has oversight authority over most or all of the functional units involved. This high-level support provides you both with the authority to make difficult decisions and a respected arbiter if units are not able to come to an agreement amicably.

In addition to a senior executive sponsor, you should also form a business intelligence steering committee consisting of representatives from your major business units. This committee may be chaired by the sponsor and serves as a forum for setting priorities, resolving differences and communicating across organizational boundaries. The steering committee should meet regularly and receive both progress updates and demonstrations of proposed and implemented solutions.

Identifying Business Priorities

One of the most critical tasks to conduct early in a business intelligence effort is setting priorities for BI work across the organization. As soon as you have a few early victories, you'll likely see an incredible surge of demand for "more of what that unit got", with units scrambling to one-up each other for priority access to the BI team. Developing and following a prioritized BI roadmap helps to keep the team focused on a manageable amount of work and completing those efforts that have the highest potential payoff for the business.

Many organizations start their prioritization effort by asking business units to bring their own highest priorities to the table. Units are often asked to write a brief description of the goals of the proposed work, the resources needed to complete the project, and the business justification for the use of those resources. The organization may enlist internal or external consultants to help units prepare these plans.

A working group may then convene to evaluate the proposals based upon two criteria: the business value and the "shovel readiness" of the plan. Business value is determined by conducting a cost/benefit analysis based upon the resources needed to complete each project and the expected benefit that it will deliver. Readiness is based upon the preparation of the BI team to complete the work and the functional unit to provide the data and guidance necessary for a successful conclusion.

It may be helpful to create a visual matrix of the results of this assessment, similar to the one shown below:

This type of matrix helps an organization see the projects that are both ready to execute and will deliver the most business value. In the example above, the Sales Forecasts project is a strong candidate for the team's first project, as it has both the highest potential business value and a high state of readiness. These factors suggest that the project will be very successful.

The matrix can also be used to help explain why other projects are not ready to execute and what can be done to help get them started. For example, while the Cash Management project is ready to execute, it does not promise great business value. The group proposing this project may wish to revisit their proposal and see if they can increase the business value by either reducing the resources required or changing the objectives to deliver more benefit to the organization. Similarly, the Product Features project is poised to deliver very high business value, but it is not yet ready to execute. The team responsible for that proposal may wish to consider foundational efforts to get their data in order.

As with any process, there are exceptions to this prioritization process. The most important one is understanding that it is critical for any business intelligence program to deliver "quick wins". These early victories help establish the program as delivering value and obtain respect among business leaders. If the projects that rank highest in your matrix would require a long amount of time to complete or carry high risk, you may wish to start with some smaller efforts that will quickly deliver concrete value. Then, once the program is well established, you can turn your attention to larger projects with greater promise.

If you've been paying attention, you probably noticed that this article hasn't mentioned technology at all. There are several good reasons for this. First, it doesn't matter whether you're using Oracle, SQL Server, or some other data warehousing technology. The basic concepts are the same. Second, the prioritization and selection effort should be technology agnostic. Don't let your solution drive your priorities.
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