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Who owns business intelligence?

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30th Jun 2008
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Business intelligence can be a battleground for sales/marketing and finance departments. John Stokdyk explores the territorial imperatives of business intelligence and performance management with Microsoft BI strategist Bruno Aziza.

Multichannel

By John Stokdyk

Millions of words - mostly impenetrable jargon - have been written about business intelligence (BI) and performance management. And Microsoft BI global strategy honcho Bruno Aziza has added 50,000 or so more with a new book, 'Drive Business Performance'.

But on the way to meet him in London recently, the thought occurred that if you set aside the underlying technology for a minute, what we're really talking about is organisational culture.

For example, BI and CPM tools feature not once, but twice in our Software Satisfaction Awards - once in the sales and marketing category and once in the accounting and finance section. The territorial divide reflects life on the corporate front line, where sales and marketing people want fast, responsive business intelligence - and will go out and get it for themselves if finance can't come up with the goods.

Finance managers, meanwhile, are more at home with Excel, Crystal Reports and all the other devices of data analysis. More often than not, they'll look down their noses at DIY reporting by other departments and cast doubt on the accuracy of the numbers. And if we're being pedantic, poor old HR didn't even get a look in, even though good people information can be invaluable for reducing costs and planning resource deployments more efficiently.

Conceptually, BI is simple: data produced by an organisation's transactional processing and operational IT systems can be collected and summarised into totals and reports that give managers get an immediate view of how they're doing. IT initially made its presence felt within finance to speed production of management and statutory accounts, so the evolution towards BI has traditionally started within that department.

"You can't roll out BI and expect everyone to be the same. Roles are different and so are the needs and metrics of different departments."

Bruno Aziza, business intelligence strategist, Microsoft

Microsoft's BI point man, Bruno Aziza, agrees that performance management is about people and culture and argues says it should involve every knowledge worker within an organisation. But he also admits that some behavioural hurdles still need to be overcome.

"Performance management is more than financial reports for finance managers. If it stays in finance, it doesn't empower the rest of the organisation," he says. "Often the driver will be when sales, marketing, operations and HR ask for reports that finance can't answser. Operations wants real time answers when finance is 2-4 weeks behind.

"You can't roll out BI and expect everyone to be the same. Roles are different and so are the needs and metrics of different departments. You've got to understand the interdependencies. You're not trying to deliver all the information to everybody and make people be like the CFO. You want to get relevant information to each."

Aziza describes performance management as an "interdependency" where the organisational models tie into sales models and forecasts. This nirvana was achieved at one of the cases studied in Aziza's book, battery company Energizer, where BI originated in operations, which now matches its production plans to sales forecasts that are closely aligned with the company's financial goals.

Performance management may have worked for Energizer, but real life isn't always that smooth for less focused and well motivated organisations. In a precursor to this article last year, AccountingWEB investigated the territorial dispute between finance and IT over business intelligence.

In the view of consulting editor David Carter, BI implementations were failing to deliver because the technologists who invented and managed them had no appreciation for what the numbers meant. Accountants are trained to test the validity of their numbers and have the ability to explain what they mean, added accountant-turned-technologist Jim Johnson. But often many accountants shy away from the technological frontline of BI and performance management.

Data accessibility and accuracy

The realities of daily business life also throw up a lot of practical difficulties. As Carter explained in another article, a sales department seeking daily or weekly feedback on revenues and volumes will look for the information from the sales order module of its accounts program. But orders are usually handled by sales admin or other customer-facing staff, which means that finance is often be left out of the loop.

The front office team is concerned about serving the customer. Creating an accurate database for management reporting comes much lower down their list of priorities. So sales invoice data can often be riddled with errors. The sales prices are going to be accurate - because customers will query any that aren't, but cost prices and analysis codes can go awry, which is where the arguments begin.

Getting sales and finance to agree on gross margin figures on a computer sales report is notoriously difficult. There are so many different data sources that perfectly legitimate numbers in the sales daybook, summary reports and P&L won't tie up. But if these sales reports all show different figures, managers will lose confidence them.

"BI is still a work in progress - software tools are available which could deliver the IT industry's long promised results, but they are only going to work if organisations get their strategy management and business models aligned."

More often than not, the finance department will wash its hands of reports that are created outside its immediate control. Like Johnson, Carter called on accountants to abandon their passive role and monthly reporting cycles to get involved down on the front line, where their analytical and interpretive skills could make a difference. But how willing are sales and marketing teams to embrace the partnering approach that is growing in popularity in some finance teams? Is the eager-faced management accountant a welcome figure, or mistrusted as a finance department spy?

Carter credits Microsoft with having created a marvellous environment for creating and distributing management information. But he still thinks the company's software and consultants haven't cracked the conundrum of performance management, which still resides in the patterns laid down by 200 years of management tradition.

BI is still a work in progress - software tools are available which could deliver the IT industry's long promised results, but they are only going to work if organisations get their strategy management and business models aligned. Aziza and his co-author Joey Fitts attempt to fill the gap between heavyweight theory and marketing-driven slogans, but end up falling into the motherhood and apple pie trap.

Six case studies and their suggested model for implementation may alter perceptions a fraction - but kind, supportive words on their own won't crack this nut. We've seen that there's a war out there on the BI front line. Which side are you on - and who's going to win?

Help us to thrash out some of the current obstacles by joining the debate below - and let us know what you think of your current BI systems. Whether you use finance, sales or HR systems, please spare a few minutes to take part in the Software Satisfaction Awards 2008 survey.

John Stokdyk is technology editor at MyCustomer.com's sister sites AccountingWEB.co.uk and Finance Week.

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