As with most areas of life, when it comes to BI there is no one single right business case, nor approach to constructing one. What matters most is ‘fitness for purpose’, and this is something that is likely to vary considerably from organisation to organisation.
Clearly a common feature of any BI initiative is likely to be the potential to gather, access and analyse a greater volume of information, and yet while having more information is usually welcomed, the lesson emerging from the sector so far is that this in itself is not a sufficient reason to invest time and money into a project; there has to be a tangible benefit to the organisation. From the eleven BI projects funded by Jisc during 2011-12 these benefits included direct financial gain, benchmarking, greater efficiency, value for money, statutory compliance and more effective use of resources.
The value of formulating a business case
The experience of the Jisc BI projects certainly reinforces the value of formulating a formal business case which articulates the expected benefits of the BI project in quantifiable and measurable terms when seeking to initiate a BI project.
Five of the projects produced a business case. Of these, the most striking and compelling was that of the Open University which demonstrated that their project would be value for money if it achieved a very modest reduction in student attrition. In contrast, the University of Manchester’s business case argued that by developing their system it would save the university time and resource in monitoring progress on an external, long-term, mandatory target and at the same time would provide a richer dataset on which to base decisions.
Durham University made a similar argument, stating that the information required to enable use of the cost centre data submitted to HESA was not onerous to collect and by being able to benchmark against similar organisations any university would be able to identify those processes and business areas which required improvement.
The University of Liverpool’s business case argued that some sort of business intelligence management dashboard was needed, in part, because other comparable organisations were already developing such facilities and implicitly suggested that Liverpool needed to ‘keep up’. Their business case was the only one to develop alternative scenarios to illustrate the varying options open to the project sponsors.
Both the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and Manchester business cases noted that the projects were building on technology already in use in the organisation and would be visibly supporting a technology strategy that the organisation was committed to. UCLan were also seeking to replace an existing, more basic system and by using organisational default products to provide a more automated and reliable data gathering system.
Alternatives to the formal business case
Though, perhaps, desirable it is not necessarily essential to develop a formal business case, and not all organisations may choose to. However, even those that don’t must still find ways of demonstrating to their authorising body that the project will provide outputs valuable enough to be worthy of investment. This may be through demonstrating the increase in the amount of information available to aid organisational decision making, usually by combining internal data sources that had previously existed in isolation or introducing external data into the organisations and combining it with organisational data.
It would also be a mistake to assume that all BI initiatives are in someway starting from scratch, or represent a totally novel direction for the organisation. More likely, a ‘new’ BI initiative may actually just represent a new chapter in the development of organisational systems, often by way of the addition of a new BI ‘layer’ on top of existing systems designed to allow data exchange and analysis between system silos. In such circumstances the project may be able to take advantage of pre-existing business cases, governance structures and development budgets.
A number of the Jisc-funded BI projects represented additions to existing organisational investments. For example, by building BI capability onto existing research information systems, both the Universities of Glasgow and Huddersfield were seeking to get extra advantage out of existing infrastructure and by implication improve both the quality of their research and their funding opportunities.
The University of East London, meanwhile, was building on an existing system which was becoming increasingly difficult to use as changing and expanding business demands led to an increase in the number of reports required to the point where the effort to manage this was becoming unsustainable. By re-engineering their management information output they sought to provide key managers with more and better information as well as allowing easier analysis of the information that was provided.