The benefits of starting small
It is very easy to be daunted by the apparent scale and complexity of a BI project, encompassing as they often do questions of data quality, system development, process improvement and change management across large swathes of the organisation.
Trying to achieve all this at once would indeed be a tall order, but it’s important to realise that this needn’t be the case. Though there are undoubted benefits to drawing from data from across the entire organisation there is no reason why this shouldn’t be seen as a long-term goal rather than an immediate priority. The need for access to BI is never uniform across an entire organisation, so why not make things more manageable by careful selection of some initial target areas?
As with many areas of life, the best advice is therefore to start small: to identify a genuine and achievable strategic and/or operational shortcoming which you feel could be addressed through better access to business intelligence and agree some clear metrics which will enable you to prove if, when and by how much things then improve.
This will then give you the confidence and experience to broaden the scope of your reach and increase the scale of your ambition as need and available resource allows.
Of course circumstances may dictate the opposite and compel you to consider this an exercise in enterprise-level change from the outset. Even so, you still have to start somewhere and the following section provides a few pointers as to just where that starting point might usefully be.
Those new to BI, or wondering how to make a start on it within their organisation may find the following simple first steps of use.
1. Work out what it is that you want to achieve
This may sound obvious, but do you really know what difference you are looking to affect, where, how and why – or are you simply reacting to the whim of a senior manager who likes the thought of a flashy dashboard on their tablet computer?
Talk to people. Find out what it really is that decision makers think they need that they currently don’t have. Read your corporate strategies and five year plans to identify directions of travel and potential ‘hooks’ from which to hang your proposed BI initiative. Consider holding workshops aimed at gathering potential users, data owners and IT staff together to debate what is desirable and what is possible (and the potential gulf between the two).
2. Establish where you are now
Despite how it might first appear, you will not be starting from scratch. It is highly likely that there are multiple projects and initiatives already underway within the organisation which could have a role to play in what you may decide forms part of your BI initiative. It could be efforts to collect and share research data as part of the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) process, plans to streamline HESA reporting requirements or discussions regarding the imminent replacement of key business applications.
Likewise it may well be that some functions or units within your organisation have a greater requirement for access to BI, or are better placed to make use of it, than others. Working out which these are will help you determine your priorities and plan accordingly.
Consider using a maturity model to provide an objective assessment of where your organisation currently sits with regards to its BI potential. It is worth bearing in mind that the level of maturity may not be the same across your organisation and that there could be higher and lower levels in different areas. Don’t find one good or bad example and assume it is representative.
3. Look at the technology and approaches that are available
There is no one right way to achieving successful BI, nor one single vision of what a BI system should look like. It is what is right for your organisation that counts. That said, in order to inform this thinking it is important to know what is possible and what routes might be open to get you there. This guide and the case studies which support it are peppered with real life learning from the sector and give you a great starting point for your research. Build on this further by asking around, seeing what colleagues in other organisations are doing and what their experiences have been.
Vendors clearly have their role to play and it is certainly worth looking at their websites and speaking to their reps when the time is right – perhaps when you feel you have a clear idea of your requirements and a long list of questions to ask rather than at an earlier stage when a lack of knowledge can make it difficult to distinguish hype from reality.
But its not just about selecting the right product. Indeed, depending on your requirements and circumstance it may even be that you are not looking to buy a new BI system, but instead wish to find ways of extracting and utilising data held in existing systems. Our ‘routes to implementation’ section may be a good starting point.
4. Prepare a business case
Whatever decisions you make and whichever products and paths to implementation you choose, your BI initiative is going to require senior management support and a certain level of investment. A well researched business case is likely to encompass elements of each of the above and may well represent the best vehicle to help draw them all together and give your work focus and structure.
The resulting business case then gives you a starting point for negotiation with management and, through its endorsement, the mandate you need to really get things moving and to use as the basis of your detailed planning. Of course if your business case fails to convince or obtain the support you require it may well be back to the drawing board and a reconsideration of steps one to three above and how they apply to your organisation.
Our guide, and the supporting case studies, contain a good deal of advice and guidance on how to approach the construction of a business case in this context which may be of use.