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Evolving Your BI Team from a Data Provider to a Solutions Provider

In her presentation on “BI Roadmaps” at TDWI’s BI Executive Summit last month, Jill Dyche explained that BI teams can either serve as “data providers” or “solutions providers.” Data providers focus on delivering data in the form of data warehouses, data marts, cubes, and semantic layers that can be used by BI developers in the business units to create reports and analytic applications. Solutions providers, on the other hand, go one step further, by working hand-in-hand with the divisions to develop BI solutions.

I firmly believe that BI teams must evolve into the role of solutions provider if they want to succeed long term. They must interface directly with the business, serving as a strategic partner that advises the business on how to leverage data and BI capabilities to solve business problems and capitalize on business opportunities. Otherwise, they will become isolated and viewed as an IT cost-center whose mission will always be questioned and whose budget will always be on the chopping block.

Data Provisioning by Default. Historically, many BI teams become data providers by default because business units already have reporting and analysis capabilities, which they’ve developed over the years in the absence of corporate support. These business units are loathe to turn over responsibility for BI development to a nascent corporate BI group that doesn’t know its business and wants to impose corporate standards for architecture, semantics, and data processing. Given this environment, most corporate BI teams take what they can get and focus on data provisioning, leaving the business units to weave gold out of the data hay they deliver.

Mired Down by Specialization

However, over time, this separation of powers fails to deliver value. The business units lose skilled report developers, and they don’t follow systematic procedures for gathering requirements, managing projects, and developing software solutions. They end up deploying multiple tools, embedding logic into reports, and spawning multiple, inconsistent views of information. Most of all, they don’t recognize the data resources available to them, and they lack the knowledge and skills to translate data into robust solutions using new and emerging BI technologies and techniques, such as OLAP cubes, in-memory visualization, agile methods, dashboard, scorecards, and predictive analytics.

On the flip side, the corporate BI team gets mired down with a project backlog that it can’t seem to shake. Adopting an industrialized assembly line mindset, it hires specialists to handle every phase of the information factory to improve efficiency (e.g. requirements, ETL, cube building, semantic modeling, etc.) yet it can’t accelerate development easily. Its processes have become too rigid and sequential. When divisions get restless waiting for the BI team to deliver, CFOs and CIOs begin to question their investments and put its budget on the chopping block.

Evolving into Solutions Providers

Rethink Everything. To overcome these obstacles, a corporate BI team needs to rethink its mission and the way it’s organized. It needs to actively engage with the business and take some direct responsibility for delivering business solutions. In some cases, it may serve as an advisor to a business unit which has some BI expertise while in others it may build the entire solution from scratch where no BI expertise exists. By transforming itself from a back-office data provider to a front-office solutions developer, a corporate BI team will add value to the organization and have more fun in the process.

It will also figure out new ways to organize itself to serve the business efficiently. To provide solutions assistance without adding budget, it will break down intra-organizational walls and cross-train specialists to serve on cross-functional project teams that deliver an entire solution from A to Z. Such cross-fertilization will invigorate many developers who will seize the chance to expand their skill sets (although some will quit when forced out of their comfort zones). Most importantly, they will become more productive and before long eliminate the project backlog.

A High Performance BI Team

For example, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee has evolved into a BI solutions provider over the course of many years. BI is now housed in an Information Management (IM) organization that reports to the CIO and is separate from the IT organization. The IM group consists of three subgroups: 1) the Data Management group 2) the Information Delivery group and 3) the IM Architecture group.

  • The Data Management group is comprised of 1) a data integration team that handles ETL work and data warehouse administration and 2) a database administration team that designs, tunes, and manages IM databases.
  • The Information Delivery group consists of 1) a BI and Performance Management team which purchases, installs, and manages BI and PM tools and solutions and provides training and two customer-facing solutions delivery teams that work with business units to build applications. The first is the IM Health Informatics team that builds clinical analytic applications using reporting, OLAP, and predictive analytics capabilities, and the second is the IM Business Informatics team which builds analytic applications for other internal departments (i.e. finance, sales, marketing).
  • The IM Architecture group builds and maintains the IM architecture, which consists of the enterprise data warehouse, data marts, and data governance programs, as well as closed loop processing and the integration of structured and unstructured data.

Collaborative Project Teams. Frank Brooks, director of data management and information delivery at BCBS of Tennessee, says that the IM group dynamically allocates resources from each IM team to support business-driven projects. Individuals from the Informatics teams serve as project managers, interfacing directly with the customers. (While Informatics members report to the IM group, many spend most of their in the departments they serve.) One or more members from each of the other IM teams (data integration, database administration, and BI/PM) is assigned to the project team and they collaboratively work to build a comprehensive solution for the customer.

In short, the BI team of BCBS of Tennessee has organized itself as a BI solutions provider, consolidating all the functions needed to deliver comprehensive solutions in one group, reporting to one individual who can ensure the various teams collaborate efficiently and effectively to meet and exceed customer requirements. BCBS of Tennessee has won many awards for its BI solutions and will be speaking at this summer’s TDWI BI Executive Summit in San Diego (August 16-18.)

The message is clear: if you want to deliver value to your organization and assure yourself a long-term, fulfilling career at your company, then don’t be satisfied with being just a data provider. Make sure you evolve into a solutions provider that is viewed as a strategic partner to the business.

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on March 16, 2010


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