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Seven Strategies for Creating High-Performance Business Intelligence Teams

By Wayne Eckerson, Director, TDWI Research

A key element in the success of any business intelligence (BI) program lies in the BI team’s ability to deliver solutions and the clout it has within an organization to secure resources and get things done. Although there is no right or wrong way to organize a BI team, there are some key principles worth knowing. The following seven guidelines can help you create a high-performance BI team that delivers outstanding value to your organization.

1. Recruit the best people. In the best-selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins says that great companies first get the right people “on the bus” (and the wrong people off it) and then figure out where to drive it. Collins reasons that the right people will help an organization figure out and execute a strategy, which is a more effective approach than recruiting people based on their skills and experience to support a strategy that might become obsolete in short order.

From a BI perspective, this means we shouldn’t hire people just because they know a specific tool or programming language, or have previous experience managing a specific task, such as quality assurance. If you need specialists like that, it’s better to outsource such positions to a low-cost provider on a short-term contractual basis. What you really want are people who are ambitious, adaptable, and eager to learn new skills. Although you should demand a certain level of technical competency and know-how, you ultimately want people who believe that BI can have a transformative effect on the business, and who possess the business acumen and technical capabilities to make that happen.

Collins adds that the right people “don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and be part of something great.” In a BI setting, these people won’t just do a job; they’ll figure out the issues and work proactively to get things done. Sure, you’ll have to pay them a lot and provide upward career mobility, but a handful of the right people will produce more than a dozen so-so people.

2. Create multidisciplinary teams. In most early-stage BI teams, a handful of highly motivated people play myriad roles: the BI project manager serves as the BI architect and requirements analyst; the BI report developer also builds ETL code and performs quality assurance checks; the technical writer provides training and support. With enough talent, resources, and chutzpah, these small, cross-disciplinary teams deliver fantastic results.

Success breeds bigger budgets, more staff, and greater specialization. In most cases, linear development by groups of specialists replaces small, multidisciplinary teams. The specialist subgroups (e.g., requirements, modeling, ETL, data warehousing, report development, support) operate in isolation, throwing their output “over the wall” to the next group in the BI assembly line. This industrial-era approach inevitably becomes mired in its own processes and project backlogs grow bigger. The once nimble, multidisciplinary BI team loses penchant for speed and its luster in the eyes of the business.

The key to remaining nimble and agile as your BI team grows is to recreate the small, multidisciplinary teams from your early-stage BI initiative. Assign three to five people responsible for delivering an entire BI solution from source to report. Train them in agile development techniques so they work iteratively with the business to deliver solutions quickly. With multiple, multidisciplinary teams, you may need to reset the architecture once in a while to align which teams are building on the ground, but this trade-off is worth it.

Multidisciplinary teams work collaboratively and quickly to find optimal solutions to critical problems, such as whether to code rules in a report, the data model, or the ETL layer. They also provide staff more leadership opportunities and avenues for learning new skills and development techniques. By providing more opportunities for learning and growth, you will increase your staff’s job satisfaction and loyalty. The most productive BI teams that I’ve seen have worked together for 10 to 15 years.

3. Establish BI governance. Once a BI team has achieved some quick wins, it needs to recruit the business to run the BI program while it assumes a supportive role. The key indicator of a BI program’s health is the degree to which the business assumes responsibility for its long-term success. Such commitment is expressed in a formal BI governance program.

Most BI governance programs consist of two steering committees that meet regularly to manage the BI initiative. An executive steering committee of BI sponsors from multiple departments meets quarterly to review the BI road map, prioritize projects, and secure funding. Second, a working committee of business analysts (i.e., subject matter experts who are intensive consumers of data) meets weekly or monthly to define the BI road map, hash out data warehouse definitions and subject areas, suggest enhancements, and select products.

The job of the BI team is to support the two BI governance committees in a reciprocal, trusting relationship. The BI team builds and maintains what the committees want to deploy while the BI team educates the sponsors about the potential of BI to transform their processes, and what solutions are feasible at what cost. The BI team also provides continuous education about emerging BI trends and technologies that have potential to reinvent the business.

4. Find purple people. The key to making BI governance programs work is recruiting people who can straddle the worlds of business and information technology (IT). These people are neither blue (i.e., business) nor red (i.e., IT), but a combination of both. These so-called purple people can speak both the language of business and data, making them perfect intermediaries.

Astute BI directors are always looking for purple people to recruit. Purple people often hail from the business side, where they’ve served as business analysts or lieutenants to BI sponsors. Their personal ties to the people in a department, such as finance, coupled with deep knowledge of business processes and data, gives them instant credibility with the business. They spend most of their time in the functional area, talking with business leaders and sitting on advisory boards where they share insights about how the business can best leverage BI to accomplish its goals.

5. Aspire to become a solution provider. The best BI teams aren’t content to simply provision data. BI directors know that if the business is to reap the full value of the BI resource, their teams have to get involved in delivering BI solutions. Although some departments may want to build their own reports and applications, few can sustain the expertise to fully exploit BI/DW capabilities to develop information as a critical resource.

High-performance BI teams work with each department to build a set of standard interactive reports or dashboards that meet 60 to 80 percent of the needs of casual users in the department. They then train and support each department’s group of “super users”—tech-savvy business users or business analysts—to use self-service BI tools to create ad hoc reports on behalf of the casual users in the department, meeting the remaining 20 to 40 percent of their information requirements. The super users, in effect, become extensions of the BI team in each department and provide an additional set of eyes and ears to keep track of what’s going on from a BI perspective.

6. Give your BI team a name. A name is a powerful thing that communicates meaning and influences perception. Most business people don’t know what business intelligence or analytics is (or may have faulty notions or ideas that don’t conform to the mission of your team). Spend time considering appropriate names that clearly communicate what your group does and why it’s important to the business.

For example, a group that created predictive models in a large financial services firm called itself the “Marketing Analytics and Business Insights” group. But it discovered that people didn’t know what the word “analytics” meant or how it differed from “business insights.” Some department heads were resentful of its milliondollar budget and the group felt it continually had to defend itself. It came up with this tagline: “We analyze information to provide usable insights to the organization.” This branding significantly improved the perceived value of the group and it became a go-to source for information inside the company.

7. Position BI within an information management department. Finally, the BI team should be organized within a larger information management (IM) department that is separate from IT and reports directly to the CIO or COO. The IM department is responsible for all information-driven applications that support the business, such as data warehousing, business intelligence, performance management, advanced analytics, spatial analytics, customer management, and master data management.

The IM department maintains a close alliance with the IT department, whose responsibilities include managing the core computing and networking infrastructure that the IM group uses. For instance, the IM group is responsible for designing and managing the data warehouse, while the IT group is responsible for tuning and operating the physical databases that run the data warehouse and the data center in which all data processing occurs.

Separating IM from IT provides a clear signal to the business that these are two separate domains that require different skill sets and career paths. People in the IM group are more business and information driven than those in the IT department, who are more technology focused.

By following these seven steps, you can transform your BI team into a high-performance organization that earns the respect of the business and enjoys sustained success.

Wayne Eckerson is the director of Research at TDWI. He is an industry analyst and the author of Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). The new edition of his book will be available in November 2010. He can be reached at

This article appeared in Wayne’s World blog March 27, 2010. For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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