Thursday, April 16, 2009

Flexibility and Complexity in Business Intelligence

Where to star, where to start? Let's begin by defining what I mean by Flexibility and Complexity:

Flexibility - The ability to do what you need to do. In regards to BI or technology in general, it is the ability to build a custom application to meet your specific, customized needs.

Complexity - The measure of how difficult a particular task, system, technology, what have you, is. This term is also used many times as usability, which is not necessarily true. Something may be very usable to an engineer but not to a typical user.

Many times, too many to count, I have companies requesting a BI tool that "Offers great flexibility and powerful enough for developers to use but easy enough for end users to use as well". This is a very common misplaced expectation that people have. The reason is simple, there is an direct relationship between flexibility and complexity. Take a look at this graph and you will see what I mean.

Basically, the more flexibility that you require a technology, a tool, a software package to be, the more complex it becomes. Think about it this way...let's say you wanted to buy a car. You go to the show room and the only choice you have is one car and two colors, red or blue. That is a very simple decision, basically what color do you prefer? This option offers very little flexibility, however, it offers very little complexity in making a decision. Now let's take this a step further, the dealer offers you the following option, you can choose between a 2.1 ltr engine or a 3.4 ltr engine, you also can choose between a regular gas or hybrid. You also get to choose between 5 different stereo packages, an extended warranty, leather or cloth seats, 5 speaker or 8 speaker system, tow package, child safety features. All of these options increase the flexibility you have in owning a car that meets your specific needs (flexibility), however, now the decision you have is much more complex. You need to research the benefits of hybrid over gas, 5 speaker or 8, extended warranty or not. You see with these added options (flexibility) comes added complexity in you final decision making.

Technology is the same way, especially when it comes to Business Intelligence. When a user comes to me and asks me for a tool that is flexible enough to meet all the needs of a BI developer while making it very easy to use (not complex), it tells me that they do not have very much experience evaluating enterprise level software solutions. Enterprise software companies spend much time and expense in developing tools that meet the needs of specific user communities. So what I have done is taken the chart above and added the different user groups.

Going through my stats on my blog I notice I get a lot of hits from people who are looking at implementing BI and to those people I say, keep this chart in mind. Evaluate each individual tool for the intended audience and do not try to solve your problem with a "fits all sizes" approach because we all know that "one size fits all" does not mean "fits like a glove" but rather "minimum required to accomplish its basic task"

Monday, March 16, 2009

Information Over Load

Information Over Load

I love technology.  Technology has improved my life greatly, especially considering my income is completely related to technology.  There is a downside to all this technology though and I don't think that we may even be able to scratch the surface on how all of this will affect our future.  When a pharmaceutical company comes out with a new drug, it must first go through rigid testing to find out how that drug may adversely affect us.  There may be some benefit to analyze our technology this way as well.,,, and are some fairly recent examples of new and innovative Web 2.0 type applications that are having a profound affect on our society.  Take facebook, my daughters are constantly on facebook, they chat with their friends, send them messages, post pictures.  If you ever want to know what is going on in their life, you don't need to sit down at the dinner table, simply log onto facebook and you will find out everything.  My point in all this is that today, there is a ton of information out there for anything and anyone.  We are constantly being bombarded by information, status updates, profile updates, picture updates, tweets, twitters, whatever.  This presents a new problem moving forward.  

In the past, businesses had a difficult time making decisions due to not having enough information.  Business Intelligence is around because companies need access to crucial information that was buried deep down in their computer systems and again, the problem that was typical was that they could not get to the information, therefore, limiting the amount of data you had access to.  I think we can all agree that technology has come to a point that we are really no longer limited by it.  We are now limited by the processing power of the human brain.  I believe it was in the book Good to Great where author Jim Collins wrote in one of the chapters about a brokerage firm and how they were able to maximize the effectiveness of their brokers.  They did a study to find out what the maximum number of contacts could handle without letting any fall through the cracks...these contacts would include both actual clients and prospects.  You see the brokers would spend hours and hours on the phone, making hundreds of dials a day...they are limited to the number of times they could dial the phone and reach the person they were intending to reach.  Factor in time for dial, leaving voice mail, missing a returned call, calling prospects and clients back calculated to 300 contacts in their 'books'.  At the time I read this I was the IT Director at a major investment relations firm.  So what did I do?  Using the data I had been collecting on our call center, I wrote a BI application to analyze the results that Jim Collins found and I was able to verify the information and make the appropriate recommendations to our sales.

Similar to brokers only having enough cycles to handle a book (list of prospects and clients) of about 300, information consumers only have enough bandwidth and brain power to handle only so much information.  For example, think of the CEO in your company.  He has information coming to him constantly.  It may be human resources related, sales related, operations related, production/manufacturing related, marketing related, merger and acquisition related, external economics related, personal/family related.  Our brains can only handle so much at a time, and we cannot upgrade to a brain clustered environment.  All of this information is competing with each other.  So the question is how much information can we handle before we reach information overload and start blocking out things....or information starts falling through the cracks.  I was once consulting with a company on developing their web presence and when we were discussing the home page of their site, I asked, what I thought at the time was a relatively simple question, "What is the most important thing you want to point out about your company?"  The answer they gave me was frustrating.....they said,"everything".  This resulting in a hours long discussion about, if everything stands out then nothing stands out.  It reminds me of a saying, "You are special, just like everyone else".

What does this long rant have to do with BI?  Well, BI is presenting information that is simply just noise among noise.  It is information that is fed to whichever information consumer we deem to require it and we expect the end user to determine it's importance.  Here is what we need...we need a system that can automatically inform us in a manner that will give it a larger priority over all the other noise and in a way we understand and respond to.  This is where technology innovation has to meet creativity.  Stephen Few has some good examples and blogs about meaningful ways to present data in an efficient and concise manner.

The purpose of this post is not to give you a solution to this problem but rather present a discussion point on how BI can help become a filter for all of this noise.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Do you know your data?

Some things never cease to amaze me. BusinessIntellienge (according to Wikipedia) has been around for over 50 years. Despite this fact, all too often companies are inadequately providing the basic foundation for Business Intelligence. Here is one small example….knowing what data you use to make decisions. Whether it is a government organization, public company, or private company, they typically know what information they need to make their most important decisions, at least from a business perspective, however, from a data perspective, IT typically has very little insight into what data is actually being used.

Let’s check out a typical example. I have seen countless times where companies are implementing new systems that require major database changes. Well, when these changes are made, IT typically has a very difficult time determining exactly what data is being used, by what reports, by which users, not to mention how many times. Now if you think about it, this is very important information. In our society now, it is easy to get lost in data, there are so many sources of information, such as this blog, news sites, facebook, myspace, linkedin, drudgereport. I think we all can agree that the problem is not if the information exist, it is, can we find it and if we can, can we connect to it. So why are the questions about the data so important?

What data is being used? By whom? How often? This is important, especially when implementing solutions such as a data warehouse. Data Warehouse implementation can be very costly and often fail even after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars above what the budget required. Many of these failures can be prevented by the ability of knowing the answer to these questions. I have been working on a project where I an organization has to transfer 200 reports that are on their legacy system and have recreate them using Crystal Reports on their new ERP system. The process is to analyze each report, find out what fields were used to create that particular report and then look to see if the data was converted to the new ERP system. What sense does this make? All of these reports are considered mission critical by this organization, so my question is why is a field in a report that is mission critical no longer available in the new ERP system. A best practice approach could have been taken here before the data conversion process if the organization new which reports were mission critical and were able to generate a report that listed all the fields within those reports.

While I was at Information Builders, Inc. using WebFOCUS, they had a fantastic product called Resource Analyzer that at a click of a button, you would have access to hundred of reports that gives you the ability to analyze what data is being used, by whom, how often. Not only that, but it could also provide you with some what if analysis…for example…what if I removed this field from our database? What reports would that affect? What users would be affected? I don’t know about you but before I make any major changes I definitely want to make sure I know the impact it will have on upper management.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Be your own Gartner! What BI tools have you used and how do YOU rank them?

This particular post is really to solicit comments and get an interaction of BI professionals and users on their experience with BI tools and how they rank them. If you have ever used a BI tool, please comment on which ones and the pros and cons you have for each of them. Constructive feedback only, this is not meant to be a vendor bashing opportunity or a vendor promoting opportunity and those type of comments will not make it. Just plain old honest feedback.

At the very least, simply fill out the survey to the right ----------->

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Five Critical Criteria to start your BI Initiative

1.       Desire Intelligence

This may sound like a given, right?  Well, not necessarily.   Often times I have seen companies approach a BI initiative simply because it is a current industry trend, other CIO’s are doing it so why don’t we.  If our competitors are doing it then we need to stay competitive and do it as well.  WRONG!  Like many things in life, doing something because you feel like you feel like you are forced to will only result in a half hazard attempt and ending in a costly mistake.  So the first step, the first requirement to start a BI initiative is to desire intelligence.  You must crave it, want it, need it, hunger after it, you get the message.  What does that really mean?  You must have a passion for improving your organization through the gathering and analyzing data and applying intelligence in order to turn that data into usable, actionable, priceless information.

Example - While working for a BI vendor, we had a new branch manager come in and he started to immediate gather and analyze information on the current branch he just acquired.  Looking at contracts that were in place, looking at opportunities that were in the pipeline and most importantly looking at the employees.  All this to ensure that this branch would be successful.  During my interview with him, he mentioned to me that he was unsure of what to think about me because I did not have a long history of selling enterprise level software and as a sales engineer that is important.  Well after about an hour of discussion, he told me that he knew that I would be successful because I was extremely passionate about Business Intelligence and helping our customers achieve success.  He was less concerned at that point about what I have done in the past because he was confident of what I will do in the future.  This is an example of how we should approach BI, like the branch manager, come into the project with the desire to learn and analyze the data, recognize passion and don’t let the past be a stumbling block…we will get more to that point in criteria #3.

2.       Know your Business and your Industry

Okay, now I may sound like I am contradicting myself because earlier I said that you shouldn’t go after BI just because it is a popular thing to do or your competitors are doing it.  In context that is true, the entire process should start with desire to make your organization more intelligent.  Another thought here is, “Of course I know my business”.  Fair enough but many times when an organization is implementing some type of Business Intelligence solution, it is lead by the IT department.  While the IT group in your organization may be very familiar with your business and industry, it is only secondary to their knowledge of technology.  Those running the business, those responsible for the primary activities of the revenue generating functions of your business are really the ones who should lead these types of projects.  Without a business sponsor, the project is surely on a path of failure.

3.       Forget about limitations

Another critical reason for these types of initiatives to be driven by the business and not IT is it is much easier for the business to forget about limitations.  Business Intelligence is all about innovation, which I will be blogging about in the coming week (innovation that is).  A major adversary of innovation are limitations.  By first taking into consideration our limitations, we automatically limit the possibilities and success of our solutions.  If IT were driving this type of project, they would automatically be biased by technology limitations.  So know your thinking, “What good is it to come up with an idea that is impossible, that just wastes time and money.”  Oh contraire mon fraire, you see as humans we always limit ourselves by what we know.  Just because we do not know how to do it doesn’t mean it cannot be done.  I learned this lesson the hard way; I was the IT Director for a company whose CEO was constantly coming up with impossible ideas.  In the beginning, the phrase, “We can’t do that, that is impossible” was a common phrase being thrown around.  After repeating that over and over and after reading Bill Gates book “Business at the speed of thought”, I realized that I was too quick to make this statement.  This realization helped me create many solutions at that company that was years in advanced of what was commercially available, and believe it or not, at a fraction of the cost.  It is a natural human propensity to limit ourselves by our own knowledge.

On the business side, make sure you do not think also in terms of what is available, don’t limit yourself to knowledge you know is within your industry but rather information that may be outside your industry but has a direct or indirect affect on your business.  For example, I was working with a prospect on a potential solution, when learning their process for forecasting, I learned that they use over 25 different variables in order to forecast their product manufacturing.  They were able to look beyond their history, so in other words, they did not just look at past performance but rather measured that performance against other variables to establish a relationship and conversely apply that relationship toward future trends of those variables, for example consumer confidence, gasoline prices, new home sales, all of these examples require data that is most likely not controlled by your organization but by leveraging this type of out of our boundaries data you can make your organization much more intelligent.

4.       Don’t forget what you learned in grade school

I know you learned a lot of basic stuff in grade school but here I am referring to more specifically your science class, remember, the one Ms. Wilson taught, the one about the scientific method.  Just in case you do not remember, here they are ( :

a.       Ask a Question

b.      Do your Research

c.       Construct a Hypothesis

d.      Test your Hypothesis

e.      Analyze your data and draw a conclusion

f.        Communicate your results

Following this method will help you form what your solution should be.

5.       Break requirements up into must have and nice to have

The “Communicate your results” in the scientific method actually makes up this portion of the criteria of success.  You must document everything you have learned up until this point in order to gain support for your new BI initiatives.  This information will be vital in generating expected ROI.  This document will also be vital in the next phase of your BI implementation which is selecting a technology vendor.  In the coming week I will outline some guidelines in selecting a technology vendor, and you may be surprised by what I say.