RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Bringing Business and IT Together: Key Elements of an Action Plan

By Dave Wells, Director of Education, TDWI, and Dan Merriman, President, Chapin Consulting Group, Inc.

Bringing Business & IT Together

Session Leaders
Maureen Clarry, CONNECT
John Doran, SunGard EnForm Consulting
Jill Dyché, Baseline Consulting
Jonathan Geiger, Intelligent Solutions, Inc.
Glenn Gutwillig, Knightsbridge Solutions
Cindi Howson, ASK LLC
Greg Jones, Sprint Nextel
Denise LeGualt, Knightsbridge Solutions
Lisa Loftis, Intelligent Solutions, Inc.
Greg Mancuso, Sinecon, LLC
Dan Merriman, Chapin Consulting Group
Al Moreno, Sinecon, LLC
Mark Peco, Camar Solutions, Inc.
Anthony Politano, Niteo Partners
Steve Pratt, Fair Isaac Corporation
Lorna Rickard, CONNECT
Martin Summerhayes, Hewlett-Packard
Dave Wells, TDWI
Dr. Barbara Wixom, University of VA
Jonathan Wu, Knightsbridge Solutions

A handout from the second keynote of the conference is available at www.tdwi.org/ww20/handout. This handout was developed by the leaders of the sessions within the Bringing Business and IT Together track, and provides a list of questions that can be used when generating action plans.

Business intelligence professionals have a great opportunity to be leaders within their organizations in bringing IT and the business together, driving more business value from IT investments and gaining the personal benefits that result. This opportunity was a major theme of the August 2005 TDWI World Conference in San Diego; a track of 18 sessions as well as two keynote presentations were dedicated to the topic. See the sidebar for a list of the leaders of these sessions.

What follows is a brief summary of some key elements of a potential action plan that BI professionals can use to bring IT and the business together, including comments from the session leaders at the conference. This action plan can be organized around the following five key components of establishing effective partnerships:

  • Enable the business—Understanding the priority business goals of the organization and working closely together to address them
  • Empathize—Taking business knowledge and understanding to a personal level
  • Internalize—Making a personal commitment to the success of the partnership
  • Contribute—Having all team members add value in some form to the partnership
  • Make it tangible—Measuring and continuously improving the bottom-line impact of “enabling the business”

Session leader John Doran provided some important guidance when he pointed out that the difficulty of bringing IT and the business together can be exacerbated by talking about IT and the business as separate entities. Therefore, this article will refer to the “BI team,” which comprises the IT and business representatives jointly responsible for the data warehouse and BI capabilities within the company.

IT and Business Value Chains

The business/IT challenge begins with two different perspectives of value, as shown in Figure 1. The IT members of the BI team generally take a data-to-value approach. Data produces information; information enhances knowledge; knowledge drives action; action produces outcomes; and favorable outcomes deliver value. The business management members of the team typically use a goals-to-value system. Business drivers and goals determine strategies; strategies drive tactics, which in turn produce results; and positive results produce value.

Bringing business and IT together

Figure 1: Two different value perspectives.

Neither of these perspectives on value is wrong, yet both are incomplete. Recognition of business goals and strategies is clearly missing from the data-to-value approach. Similarly, the goals-to-value system fails to acknowledge information and data as elements of value creation.

On closer examination, we see that these perspectives have common elements as well as differences. Action from the data-to-value chain is synonymous with business tactics in the goals-to-value chain. Similarly, outcomes and business results are different expressions of the same concept. By merging the common elements and retaining the unique components of both value chains, we arrive at a single, shared perspective of value creation: the BI perspective. This shared view of value creation is complete and balanced. It recognizes all of the elements—business goals, business strategies, information, and data—as equally significant when creating business value. See Figure 2, which illustrates the BI perspective.

Bringing business and IT together

Figure 2: Shared value perspective

BI professionals are in a unique position to adopt and popularize a new and common value system. Successful BI programs bring together business knowledge and data knowledge. These programs depend on the alignment of information services with the goals and strategies of the business. Equally significant, they recognize the important role that information fulfills in meeting business goals. The teams that create and sustain effective BI programs must have the combination of knowledge and skills—both business and technical—needed to establish this new value system. BI professionals are uniquely positioned to lead the charge.

Creating a new value system and realizing business benefits from that system demands an action plan. Begin by engaging the new value model—all parts, both business and technical. Then define and implement a plan that encompasses the five elements introduced earlier: enable the business, empathize, internalize, contribute, and make it tangible.

Enable the Business

The fundamental objective of the BI team is to enable the organization to generate significant, incremental business value. To achieve this objective, team members must gather and absorb information regarding the latest priority business objectives of the company, and then act upon that information.

Session leader Jonathan Geiger described “the range of information regarding business goals and strategies that exists within each company.” This information, he explained, can be gleaned from standard public sources (e.g., annual reports, corporate Web sites, earnings calls), general internal business dialogs (business meetings, discussions, planning documents), and sensitive strategic work when available (strategic planning sessions, senior executive meetings). Team members need to be aware of this range of information and determine their near-term focus for increasing their business knowledge. At a minimum, each team member should have a firm grasp of the information that is publicly available—there is no excuse for not being as informed as a major stockholder.

Once this business information is known, it then needs to be tightly linked to the company’s evolving BI/DW capabilities. In her session, Jill Dyché used a bridge analogy to portray a best practice for accomplishing this: “The strategy and implementation sides of the team can be thought of as two groups working simultaneously to build both ends of a bridge, needing to connect in the middle as the initiative moves to deployment.” She explained that the business/strategy members of the team, who are experts in the business goals and objectives, should have a deliberate process for leveraging BI capabilities into all new initiatives. The practitioners should focus on the BI implementation issues while also working with the business side to determine how to prioritize discrete business requirements. The key to this, as Glenn Gutwillig emphasized in his session, is continuous collaboration: “The members of the team must continually make adjustments as the unavoidable changes occur. This cannot be a one-shot planning exercise at the beginning of a project.”

Session leader Cindi Howson helps BI teams develop marketing plans for BI applications. This additional key component of the ongoing dialog enables the teams to develop solutions that are more aligned with business goals and user needs. She recommends that these teams “engage sponsors and key users to promote their BI business successes in a variety of communication media—for example, internal newsletters, staff meetings, company intranet.” Awareness of current uses of the capability can assist others in the organization in determining how they might also benefit.

Empathize

The most effective partnerships are those that take knowledge and understanding to the personal level, helping individuals battle through the inevitable challenges that arise. Session leader Mark Peco recalled an old adage: “Walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.” He added, “A deep emotional understanding and connection between the members of the team is essential for an effective partnership. If each of the key team members understands and empathizes with the goals, needs, and challenges of the others he or she is working with, the team will accomplish much more.”

Fundamental to empathy is the need for IT members of the team to consider implications for those with business roles, and for business members to consider impacts on those who have technology responsibilities. How can IT empathize with business without a basic understanding of business concepts, issues, and challenges? Conversely, how can business people empathize with IT if they lack basic technical understanding? When technical people become more business literate and business people more technology savvy, effective BI partnerships become possible.

Maureen Clarry and Lorna Rickard build on this concept in their work addressing the organizational pitfalls of IT and business partnerships. In her session, Maureen explained that “people involved in BI initiatives often fall into common roles of senior executives, middle-level managers, individual contributors, and customers.” She went on to explain that through predictable conditions experienced by each of these roles (e.g., overload, pressure from all sides, disregard, neglect) and the predictable responses (sucking it up, sliding into the middle, holding others responsible), each can fall out of the “partnership” and into familiar disempowering scenarios. To be effective, the team members must recognize when the predictable responses are occurring and take stands to correct them by:

  1. Creating joint responsibility throughout the organization,
  2. Taking an active part in the problem resolution, and
  3. Involving the team members and customers of the BI initiative early and often in the process in a meaningful way.

It is important to note that a key part of empathizing is knowing the practical limits for the team. John Doran cautioned that “you can’t push too far, too fast. It is important for the team to be successful early and then build from there. While a given part of the team may be able to make far more progress in its particular silo, the team needs to move forward at an aggressive but manageable pace from its collective perspective.”

Internalize

Internalization is the counterpart of empathy. Where empathy considers personal impact on others, internalization focuses on personal implications for you. Mark Peco’s earlier statement about “deep emotional understanding and connection” emphasizes the importance of internalization. This level of understanding is achieved when its basis is an equally deep, personal commitment to strong and successful business/IT relationships.

Internalizing is an exercise of introspection—a very personal process of asking yourself hard questions. Begin with a clear sense of your own goals, both personal and professional. Then ask yourself the following questions: What do you need to do to empathize, and how does this connect with your personal and career goals? What can you do individually to enable the business, and how does this support your personal and career goals? How can you contribute to a team effort to enable the business, and how does this relate to your personal and career goals?

Finally, make the commitment concrete by answering the following questions: How will you measure the success of your business/IT relationships? How will you measure the value of your contributions to a BI team? How frequently will you review your goals and reaffirm your commitment?

Contribute

For a partnership to work, it has to be a two-way street. Therefore, all of the IT and business members of the BI team need to contribute. This is essential in creating a true, team-oriented environment that is effective at innovating.

One way BI team members can contribute is by continually raising the bar of the expected business value to be enabled by BI initiatives. Jonathan Geiger likes to say: "In a data warehouse, if you are only doing what you are being asked to do, you will fail." In other words, the BI team needs to actively promote innovative ways of using BI to support the priority business goals of their companies—their competitors are certainly doing so.

Philip Russom, senior manager of research and services at TDWI, regularly sees opportunities for BI professionals to be of great value to their organizations by bringing important discipline and structure to the business environment. "BI creates valuable information by helping the business describe issues and goals in structured, quantitative terms. BI professionals also understand that metrics exist in a hierarchy, and that relationships between them are critical. Business people operating in silos often do not realize this."

Make it Tangible

As most of us have experienced over the last few years, doing good work is no longer adequate in and of itself; success is determined by the actual impact on the bottom line. While developing business justifications as part of IT projects is increasingly common, three elements typically need to be added to deliver true, tangible results: metrics, accountability, and continuous improvement.

Metrics are the foundation of tangibility, enabling actual results to be measured and compared against a plan. Instead of acting on intuition, the business members of the team can greatly benefit from insight into what is happening using a common, agreed-upon, quantitative picture of results. The good news is that the team's BI leads are often the most comfortable with defining and using metrics.

When technical people become more business literate and business people more technology savvy, effective BI partnerships become possible.

This foundation is useless, however, unless each key business metric and related target has a senior manager who is accountable. This is the single greatest shortcoming with most business justifications today. If the metric is associated with increasing revenue or reducing business cost, then a senior business executive should be accountable. If the metric has to do with improving the cost-effectiveness of an IT capability, then a senior IT executive can take accountability. Bottom line: without accountability, you have a wish, not a plan!

Once metrics and accountability have been established, it is critical to make sure that the mechanisms and processes are in place for ongoing measurement and continuous improvement. Upfront estimates will be much more accurate if the team knows that results will be measured after the fact. Continuous improvement is then required to determine the underlying causes of issues that arise, and even better, identify and proactively address emerging problems before they significantly impact results.

Take Action!

The BI community certainly didn't cause the challenges that prevent business and IT from working together effectively, but it is in a great position to help overcome them. The key at this stage is taking action. Set aside some time to identify the near-term actions that will help your organization generate more business value from its investments, in BI specifically and IT in general. Make the personal commitment to implement these actions. This will surely add more to a very busy plate, but it will be well worth it!

Dave Wells, TDWI's director of education, is a Certified Business Intelligence Professional (CBIP), a frequent speaker at industry conferences, an independent data warehousing consultant, and a contributing author to industry publications. Through a career of more than 30 years, he has worked in management, analysis and design, quality assurance, data administration, programming, consulting, and education roles. He can be reached at dwells@tdwi.org.
Dan Merriman, president of Chapin Consulting Group, helps IT and business members of BI teams maximize the business results of technology initiatives. For more than 20 years, he has helped clients in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East realize significant business gains using technologies such as business intelligence, data warehousing, CRM, ERP, and e-commerce. Dan can be reached at dmerriman@chapinconsulting.com, or via www.chapinconsulting.com.

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