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Human Behavior and Data Warehousing/BI Success

Getting the most from BI and data warehousing requires more than just knowledge about technology -- we also need people skills, especially to interact and work together better.

[Editor's note: Len Silverston is conducting an all-day course at the TDWI World Conference in Orlando ( on Sunday, November 11th: Mastering the Human Side of Data Warehousing and BI: How to Succeed in a Changing World of Agile, Big Data, Data Governance, and More.]

Business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing (DW) aren't just about the technologies and platforms? We also need to learn about human behavior as much as the technology.

Aren't we all professional and know how to interact and work together well already, I hear you ask. You're not alone. Recently, I heard one of my data warehouse client's say, "We already know this stuff and we are professional, so let's not waste time with airy-fairy stuff about human behavior and dynamics that exist between people."

Does that sound like something you'd hear at your organization? Let's put that statement -- "we already know this" -- to the test.

Handling Conflict

Handling conflicts is one area of human behavior that tends to be a critical success factor for success in BI and DW, so what is the first thing one should do when handling conflict?

I have posed this question before to thousands of BI/DW professionals in various seminars. More than 95 percent of the time, executives and workers alike do not respond with the answer that leading conflict management experts suggest.

Before I reveal what experts say, how would you answer the question? (Don't read ahead until you've had time to seriously consider your answer.)

Most people say something like, "really listen to the other side of the argument." Although this is an extremely important step, there are numerous conflict management frameworks that suggest that the first step is something else. Instead of first looking outward, it is most important to look inward and see what reaction you are having. If there is a conflict, chances are that you are having a reaction. There are powerful frameworks and technologies that exist that help us see what is really happening (within ourselves) and to react less so that we can more intelligently respond. Other technologies can be very helpful: trust frameworks, techniques for modeling and understanding motivations showing why people behave the way that they do, and techniques for getting agreement regarding vision.

We have applied these technologies at client sites with positive results. For example, a large health-care insurance organization socialized a 5-step conflict management process in their data integration efforts. The result: people were able to move towards agreement more often when conflicts arose. This helped them more quickly resolve these conflicts which helped in creating huge value for their organization and resulted in them receiving an international award for their program due to their substantial return on investment.

Furthermore, we have found that as a general rule, we don't really know when it comes to human behavior, and one of the most worthwhile investments is in learning about this area in our data warehousing and BI efforts.

Books, seminars, and programs on the topic are often useful for helping you get started. However, the problem with relying on materials that don't have insight into our field is that we have many unique challenges in our DW and BI discipline.

For example, one challenge is what I call "data mine"ing. That's not a typo, and I am not referring to the common term "data mining" that we use in our field for the exploration of data. Instead, I'm talking about the important and inevitable scenario where we are trying to integrate data and the person that is in charge of the data says, "This is my data!" -- hence data "mine"ing.

As a consultant, I have seen this scenario play out so many times in so many ways and it is critical to address it sooner rather than later. Salespeople who feel like they "own" their customer data often do not want to integrate data for DW and BI purposes. Finance or human resource professionals are leery about integrating "their" data into an enterprise data warehouse.

There are solutions and best practices for understanding this scenario as well as other inevitable scenarios that happen in our field. Doesn't it make sense to know that these scenarios will likely happen and have some tools to handle this before it happens? If we wait to handle them on the fly, it is often too late.

Real-World Success and Failure

I've seen human behavior in DW and BI efforts that can have significant affect on an organization's success or failure. A huge example is "righteousness" -- the deep human need to be right. When two or more people need to be right, conflicts and challenges arise, progress slows, and time is not used efficiently. It is perfectly acceptable and healthy for different people to have different perspectives. However, it is so much more effective when we can honor and appreciate various perspectives and hear people out, rather than clinging to a "my way is right" position. A survey at one client with thousands of employees revealed that what people in their organization wanted most was "to be heard."

I was engaged at a client site with four expert data modelers and I was hired to oversee them and help facilitate common data model structures. One of the questions that arose was how to model roles. Because we wanted a consistent way to model this, I suggested that each of the ways had great merit, and we would take various ideas from a couple of the suggestions and then standardize. One of the modelers had great angst about accepting this, saying that this solution was wrong (of course, it was not his way). This caused tremendous amount of wasted time and effort and decreased productivity. It may have helped to have frameworks in place to deal with this type of conflict scenario before it actually arose. However, the mind set was that we should only deal with things when they arise and doing so in advance is not a good use of time. This proved to be inaccurate.

At another client, we had a similar situation with differences of opinion about the way data structures should be modeled. This team was very skilled at providing input without holding to a perspective that there is one right way (or that "my" way is right). There were also guidelines in place to catch if and when conflict arose and when data "mine"ing occurred and deal with it effectively. This effort was one of the most successful data integration efforts that I have witnessed.

What can you do now?

Make investments in one of the most important areas that will make a difference in your level of success in BI/DW. We spend much more time in human interactions than any other activity on our BI/DW efforts and the effectiveness of the underlying human behaviors will make much more of a difference in results than anything else.

Recognize that although learning about these tools and technologies is important, what is more important is to practice these techniques and skills before they are needed so that when these inevitable scenarios arise (and they will), you and your team are prepared.

Len Silverston is the author of The Data Model Resource Book series as well as a consultant, speaker, president of Universal Data Models. He is an expert in data management, data modeling, and human dynamics. You can contact the author at

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