BI Software Implementation Success: The Human Factor

We’re increasingly hearing about the benefits of having the right business intelligence (BI) application or business analysis (BA) tool. We hear about how good or complete BI applications can be and how they can solve much of our data management problems, almost at the speed of a click. We are easily convinced that a BI application will help us achieve total control over our business and increase the return on investment (ROI) of our data assets by producing more and better information—leading to better decisions and boosting business performance.

While it is an undeniable truth that BI solutions have this potential, the success of a BI software implementation depends on several other factors.

Not just about software
Besides having a powerful tool to support corporate decisions, we need to consider the human factor. It’s not just about having the material resources. It’s also about having the right personnel to select the right BI product, to help customize and deploy the best BI possible solution, and to use the BI platform in the right way. Everyone involved in the BI lifecycle should have a say in every step of a BI solution deployment.

We have great tools, so why do our BI implementations fail?
In a video from one of Gartner’s Summer Events (Business Intelligence 2011), Patrick Meehan, vice president and research director, talked about BI software implementation failure, which triggered an interesting discussion within a Linkedin group (membership required for access). Although I disagree with Mr. Meehan regarding the failure rate of BI implementations—he cites about 70 to 80 percent, a rate disputed also by Cindi Howson—he points out what I consider to be an important mistake organizations make: they assume that BI is just a set of tools that together work like a crystal ball to unveil their data’s secret messages.

One comment in particular hit the mark:

BI projects have a huge cross-departmental dependency.

It’s the nature of BI to involve people from several areas: IT, financing, sales, etc., especially in large organizations where it is necessary for internal and even external business areas to work in agreement, so a BI software implementation project should necessarily involve the same people.

A BI solution may start as the initiative of a single business department, but once the benefits of BI tools and applications are shown, it often will spread across a larger number of departments. Interaction between business units is then fundamental for BI success. From the perspective of human interaction, three major components go into deploying a BI solution and exploiting it to its potential:

  • Communication. A fundamental goal of BI solutions is to provide the means to analyze data and encourage better communication between end users to improve the decision-making process. But the same principles apply when deploying the BI application: successful communication of needs, of objectives, and even of potential risks and changes can promote the success of a BI project.
  • Collaboration. Collaboration involves more than communicating results. Communication has to go both ways to share information and ideas, to work together in reaching a common goal or solving a common problem. Collaboration requires a strong level of commitment from all members—both individuals and groups.
  • Negotiation. Because BI deals with the management and analysis of information, stakeholders and team members are often required to agree on the scope, reach, disclosure, and access rights of this data in regard to specific users and groups. Issues must be settled by negotiation in order to grant or deny access to all data assets.

So, from the user perspective, departmental dependency can represent a big challenge to a BI deployment project. The success of a BI implementation depends highly on the degree to which the following factors are present among team members:

  • Commitment—by requiring all stakeholders to commit to the project through all its stages
  • Flexibility—by reinforcing this commitment every step of the way and readjusting general and specific objectives as necessary
  • Knowledge transfer—by “spreading the word” or transferring the knowledge acquired during the initial stages of BI solution mapping, to ensure all users have the necessary knowledge to perform their duties once the BI solution is fully implemented

Of course, there are many risks you may confront when implementing a BI solution, but certainly human interaction plays a fundamental role in surmounting them.

Not just data consumption
Quite often I hear about how a BI application can handle large amounts of data and make sense of them. It’s true that data is everywhere and it’s being generated in massive amounts within every organization. But buying a good BI application and putting information into it will not, alone, guarantee information analysis success.

To become valuable information, data has to be taken seriously. It’s not just about having data quicker and in large amounts; it’s about having the right information (data analysis and quality) delivered to the proper user (data distribution) and at the right time (data timeliness). While data timeliness holds the edge in the eyes of the user, mainly because of the fast pace at which data is required by some organizations, a balance is necessary in order to deliver information that contains all three qualities.

Proper management is required to pass this data through a series of steps to guarantee that it will become an information asset to the organization. Your BI application needs to be able to handle the following processes:

  • Data needs to be qualified and selected properly.
  • Data needs to be consolidated and focused properly.
  • Data needs to be transformed and cleaned to meet specific requirements.
  • Data needs to be delivered at the right time, to the right people, and in the right way.

So, as simple as it appears to be, transforming data into information is by no means a minor task, and organizations need to take into account the human resources involved within this process, beyond the data geeks who deal directly with your data. It requires the collective effort of all people involved with this data, at all levels of the organization: the human factor.

Boris Evelson in a post regarding the acquisition of Oco by Deloitte highlights the importance of the mix between software and consultancy services, and how this factor is triggering the fusion between software vendors and consultancy companies. He also states that

BI is all about software plus services. There’s no such thing as “plug-and-play” BI. One always needs to bundle it with services to integrate data, customize metrics and applications, etc.

There are very few, if any, absolutes in the BI space. But I do agree that often it is the blend between applications, between data and services, that can set a BI software solution on the road to success. Using a BI application doesn’t mean collecting data; it means going further to manage and deliver the right information to the right people. And people are key to understanding how that data ought to be managed and used.

BI and the human factor
In his post Business Analytics—Nonsense or Prudence?, Gary Cokins talks about leadership, decision rights, and factors that contribute to organizational improvement. He concludes:

The more that decision rights are granted down into the work force skilled with analytical competency, then the faster will be the rate of organizational improvement.

Finding the right people–method–tool combination for your organization will convert your BI applications into drivers of performance improvement.

Deploying a BI solution is more complex than just installing a powerful application. Its chances for success require a lot of tightly integrated factors to be considered. Broadly speaking, the human factor comes into play in the following important ways when deploying and working with any software solution:

  1. Organizational collaboration for good interaction and communication of goals, expectations, risks, issues and changes.
  2. Strong sponsorship from all stakeholders and work groups to encourage deployment success and adoption of the BI project.
  3. A savvy team on both the technical and the business sides to have the best possible human resources in place.

Do you have a BI project success story, or failure? How seriously do you take the human factor? I welcome your thoughts—leave a comment below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.


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