Not all BI projects will involve external vendors and the adoption of new products (either commercial or open source). For some organisations their BI requirements can be met, either fully or in part, through a combination of the development of existing technologies and the utilisation of internal expertise. Which route is right for you will be one of the most important decisions your project will have to make and will need to balance a number of competing factors.
Going it alone may instinctively seem the most straightforward approach, after all you will be working with people and systems you know, will avoid any lengthy tendering processes and are less likely to have to engage the services of consultants and trainers etc. But while all the above may well be true, we should not discount the costs and drawbacks of internal development.
Relying on existing internal expertise may limit the options open to you and risk saddling you with the solution which is easiest, rather than the one which best meets your needs. Equally, though you avoid the need to engage with expensive external expertise any internal development and project management effort will still clearly incur costs in terms of staff time. Without careful management you also run a greater risk of your project being blown off course as the staff you are relying on get pulled into other projects, or potentially leave the organisation altogether.
Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong. Working out what is best for you in your situation and making a considered option accordingly is what is important. Nor is it necessarily a straightforward either/or decision, with many projects choosing to mix and match between sources of internal and external support; choosing to develop pre-existing software, for example, but obtaining external expertise to assist with system integration. Could there even be scope for organisations to start collaborating between themselves in terms of developing BI platforms as a shared service?
Every organisation is different and needs to come to its own conclusion about the most appropriate route for them in their particular circumstances. The experience of other organisations may point to potential ways forward, but ultimately it is what is right, practicable and achievable for your organisation that counts; which points to the need for a period of reflection and self-analysis first before any decisions are made. Tried and tested tools such as ‘SWOT analysis’ may well have a role to play here.
When choosing a vendor or BI reporting tool, making use of Gartner BI expertise can be very useful. Aside from their BI ‘magic quadrant’, they produce a SWOT analysis of various BI tools helping you to choose the most effective solution for the HEI.
Roughly half of the eleven Jisc-funded projects made significant use of software vendors. Some, such as the University of Central Lancashire, were building on an existing relationship while for staff on other projects such as the University of Bedfordshire working with external suppliers was a new experience and involved a steep learning curve.
If you do decide to engage with vendors during your project, the following lessons learned from the Jisc projects may be worth considering:
1. Ensure that suppliers have a compatible environment to yours if they are doing off-site development
While UCLan generally enjoyed a good relationship with their supplier, they did experience several examples of the development environment of their supplier, which was off-site, not being fit for purpose when implemented on the UCLan infrastructure and within the UCLan security envelope.
The issues experienced varied from significant software version differences through to access control difficulties, including the university’s single sign-on mechanism and might have been avoided by a clearer statement of requirements on the part of UCLan and a more rigorous understanding of the UCLan environment on the part of the supplier.
2. Ensure that there is an unambiguous agreement with your supplier covering commitment and deliverables
For Bedfordshire maintaining a good relationship with their supplier was a challenge and they felt that several verbal agreements and assurances were not honoured. Consequently they recommend that the contracts with suppliers should be detailed and explicit about the expectations on both sides and all relevant documentation, including emails, should be retained in case of dispute.
A clear mutual understanding is particularly important when the budget is both tight and non-negotiable and achieving this can be helped by including a specialist such as a purchasing officer or contracts manager at an early stage.
3. Choose a strategy which will maximise your return on investment with the supplier
For the University of Bolton a major concern was that while they needed external expertise for the development of their visualisations it was important not to tie themselves to a supplier for all developments as this would be both costly and lead to inflexibility in a rapidly changing environment.
In the end they used their suppliers to support and develop their own staff which required more ‘up front’ commitment from the in-house staff but has resulted in a more robust and sustainable outcome.
4. If time permits, use a tender process to find the supplier who is most likely to meet your requirements
To ensure that they had the best supplier, the University of Liverpool issued an invitation to tender (ITT) to potential suppliers. This in itself reduced the field with some potential suppliers declining to tender. As is usual for formal tender processes, evaluation was a desk top exercise where the tenders were analysed against the stated requirements followed by face to face presentations.
This process gave assurance to both the project team and their sponsors that by following a formal, structured process the best supplier had been selected.
5. Query whether you really need an external supplier
The University of Sheffield noted that by definition there is a great deal of expertise residing in academic departments and suggested that harnessing suitably qualified and experienced academics to engage in Business Intelligence projects would be cost effective alternative to bringing in external consultants.