Business intelligence is a priority for enterprise leaders, but BI efforts are being undermined by poor organisation and communication. One way to address this according to Gartner is to create a 'BI competency centre' within the business. So what does this entail?
By Neil Davey, editor
For the second year in a row, studies have revealed that business intelligence (BI) is the number one technology priority for business leaders. Earlier this year, Gartner surveyed 1,400 CIOs, with the vast majority emphasising the importance of BI as a strategic initiative. But even though firms are acknowledging that BI is instrumental in driving business effectiveness and innovation, there remains a sticking point when it comes to actual execution of the business intelligence strategy.
If the dominant theme in business intelligence is that of ‘communication’ then it is ironic that many BI strategies can be undone by a deficiency in this very area. In particular, a communication problem commonly exists between the business leaders, IT team and users that all play such a critical role in the success of a BI strategy. So what is the solution? How can firms ensure that users and executive alike understand the important role of BI? How can they ensure that communication lines across the business are built to avoid the creation of BI application silos? And how they ensure that BI activism is aligned as new technologies emerge and business needs change?
The key, according to Gartner, is that good business intelligence needs a good team. And this, it suggests, can be established through the creation of a BI competency centre.
“Communication between IT and business often breaks down, and there is a disconnect between the people who are doing the work and the executives in terms of what the technology can deliver,” explains Andreas Bitterer, research vice president at Gartner. “Executives can have a very limited view of what BI does… there is certainly a widespread misconception of what BI is, what it is used for, who is using it, and so on. IT is the supply side of BI and business is the demand side and they both have to figure out where they want to take this initiative, so it needs to have some kind of programme office and a steering committee - and that is what we call the BI competency centre.”
Most organisations lack the communication and organisational commitment to manage, implement and support BI projects, and the skills that they have are either limited or spread across the organisation. Consisting of representatives from several departments and consolidating the relevant skills, the BI competency centre’s role is to champion the BI technologies and address issues associated with BI projects.
The five main tasks of the centre are:
• Setting standards for BI tools that are supported throughout the organisation.
• Guiding users to meet their BI needs, in terms of training them how to use the data and BI tools.
• Performing analysis in conjunction with the business units.
• Overseeing the analytic approach used across the enterprise to ensure consistency.
• Coordinating use of business data, and defining and integrating definitions of the relevant business terms.
Bitterer explains: “The BI competency centre needs to prioritise investments, establish what skills are available, whether people need to be sent on training courses, whether a consultancy needs to be approached, whether it can actually deliver on the promise… So it has technology relevance, organisational relevance and training and education relevance. It therefore has a lot of balls in the air at any one time.”
“It is also there to figure out what is already happening in the organisation – and you will probably find that there is already a lot of BI stuff going on,” continues Bitterer. “Many people may have already been buying their own little pools of BI without any procurement control. And if everybody was just going out and buying whatever tool they thought was right for them then that is how you end up with these zoos of tools, and if you ask five people the same question you get five different answers depending on what tool it is, what version it is, what data they collect and so on. So one of the big tasks is to come up with BI standards, BI rules, and create a sign-off process so that staff can’t just go and buy something off the market.”
BI competency centre skills
In creating a BI competency centre, firms should staff it with dedicated analytic, business and IT experts, which support business managers in making informed BI decisions – although the business managers themselves are not usually part of the centre. Skills required by these experts include:
• Business skills (the ability to communicate at executive level and link BI with the organisation’s strategic goals; an understanding of line-of-business needs, from finance to sales and marketing to human resources; the ability to help business managers set priorities).
• IT skills (comprehensive understanding of BI tools and technologies, data warehouses and data administration; how to access and manage the data required to support business and analysis requirements).
• Analytic skills (the ability to train users how to utilise the data; distil the relevant information and produce recommendations; explore the data and discover patterns, relationships, trends and anomalies; research business problems).
“The BI competency centre is ideally staffed with both BI and business people, because the two groups can’t live without eachother - IT cannot just build something and hope that the business will use it, and business should at least have IT’s resource management - they need to know what is available in terms of tools, what skills are available, what training and infrastructure and so on. So this is a collaborative effort by people in finance and sales and marketing and HR …it is a combined entity,” says Bitterer.
“You need business skills of course. You need some analytical skills to figure out what are the major analytic requirements within the business. You also need to figure out how you prioritise all of these different requirements, and of course you need technical skills to figure out what kind of tool sets you need - from reporting to database and data integration and quality and dashboarding and so on - and establish what the best platform is going to be to roll out these BI tools to the community.”
The centre shouldn’t be a large department, with Bitterer suggesting is should have a maximum of around ten participants. In terms of the location of the centre, it is likely to vary from business to business, industry to industry. Nevertheless, despite this and the fact that as a virtual team it reports to almost anybody within the organisation, in many cases the competency centre reports to the CIO or the CFO as this is very often the main sponsor of the BI programme. But the key thing is to ensure that the centre has “teeth” – or else the entire operation risks being a waste of time.
“If the BI competency centre concludes that the organisation will be using SAP, for instance, and the people in the business decide to continue using whatever they want, then the centre is doomed,” stresses Bitterer. “It needs to have decision power. It needs to have sponsorship. It needs to have a champion within the high ranks of the business with whom they get together regularly, like every other steering committee, so they know what the roadmap is and what the big deliverables are.”
Gartner suggests that the more forward-thinking enterprises have been experimenting with competency centres for several years, with positive results. A survey from BetterManagement.com found that almost three quarters of respondents reported increased usage of business intelligence after implementing a BI competency centre, with nearly half reporting better understanding of the value of BI, increased business user satisfaction and increased decision-making speed.
With business intelligence continuing to dominate boardroom discussions on technology, and communication continuing to be the initiative’s undoing, the indications are that an increasing number of firms will see BI competency centres as an intelligent idea.
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