RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Agile BI: How to Turn Vague Ideas into Tangible Deliverables

This four-point methodology can help IT deliver on BI's promise of innovation and improving the top line.

By Mehul Shah and Sachin Sinha

Business intelligence has become a catch-all term used within IT to refer to the tools that drive business value and deliver on IT's promise of being innovative and improving an enterprise's top line, rather than IT being simply a cost center.

The majority of BI programs begin with an information or data strategy and a 3-5 year road map for implementing the strategy. The road map, usually built at a high level, categorizes the plan into major groups, such as enterprise data warehouse and business intelligence, data governance and quality, operational reporting, and advanced analytics. When it comes to executing these programs (especially BI), many people struggle with the high-level outline and tight timeline. How do you move towards shaping something concrete? How do you deliver value with some quick wins and maintain the momentum throughout the life of the program?

Recently we read a post by Vivek Haldar at Google about how Google applies agile principles to the vagueness in their projects. We instantly realized that many of those ideas can be applied to our business intelligence initiatives.

The key message within the post can be summarized as "Build, Fail, Fix, Repeat, and Grow." We can extract four central tenets proposed by Vivek applicable to a BI program:

Tenet 1: Formulate principles that will guide the solution

Principles are high-level ideas that help constrain the solution's design. For example, Vivek mentions how Gmail chose the principle that search should be the primary e-mail navigation mechanism and everything just followed.

Tenet 2: Find one core or concrete idea and build on it

Begin with one core idea and build on it using rapid prototyping. There might be huge swaths of functionality missing. It might be a bit ugly and slow, but that's fine. The idea needs to be concrete and tangible as well as something you can demonstrate and your business users can play with, talk about, criticize, and get excited about.

Tenet 3: Your initial idea should be "growable"

Your prototype should not be a dead end. You should be able to add and update features. Adding something new or changing it should not require you to build a new prototype from scratch. In other words, it should support iteration. You may have to throw prototypes away, but ideally that happens only when the prototype has brought you to a major insight that invalidates some of your basic assumptions. Even then, it would have served its purpose because the concept and design can be reused.

Tenet 4: Speed of iteration almost always beats the quality of the solution

Focus on learning and fixing continuously and quickly. Don't worry excessively about getting everything in your solution "right." Your idea of "right" may not be correct, and the chances are that most other peoples' idea of "right" won't be, either. Only by having something real to criticize and learn from will everyone figure out what "right" is.

Putting Tenets into Practice: An Example

Let's take these tenets and see how they can be applied to a real-world scenario for a midsize insurance company in the midst of implementing a BI program. Our hypothetical company has recently developed a data strategy and three-year road map for implementing a comprehensive information management (IM) program (BI is the key subprogram or track under the wider IM umbrella).

The three initiatives identified as part of the track are policy analysis, claims analysis, and finance and accounting. Below we have leveraged the four agile tenets that can aid in execution and delivery of the BI subprogram.

Applying Tenet 1: A key set of principles are identified that can be applied to all three initiatives. These principles are vital to the success of the BI track and can be applied uniformly to all three. The key principles are:

  • Ensure proper business ownership for all three initiatives. The business owner must possess the required functional expertise and will provide strategic and tactical leadership.
  • The enterprise must leverage integrated teams of IT and business resources.
  • Change is common for BI projects. It is critical that project components are designed with change and reusability in mind.

Applying Tenet 2: The BI road map identified three initiatives (policy analysis, claims analysis, and accounting and finance). All three are broad in scope and equally complex. Instead of starting all three at the same time, the enterprise should begin with a concrete initiative that is central to the business as well as the success of the program. In the insurance business, "policy" is the key product sold to consumers. Everything begins and ends with a policy. "Claims" are filed against a policy and "finance and accounting" tasks involve payments, premium bookings, and earned premium calculations for a policy. Thus, the other two initiatives hinge on the "policy" analysis that becomes the starting point.

Applying Tenet 3: Policy analysis is at the core of the BI subprogram. This project will focus on the analysis of policies; their types; profiles based on terms, duration, and premiums; and risks for the operating environment at any particular time. This analysis will provide insight to the underwriters about the strengths and weaknesses of the underwriting process. Once the policy data and reporting foundation has been established, it can be easily expanded to include additional subjects related to a policy, such as brokers, underwriters, and geography. The initial idea itself can grow to support the other, larger initiatives involving claims analysis and finance/accounting.

Applying Tenet 4: The 80/20 rule applies to most of the BI initiatives. It will take 20 percent of the effort to get 80 percent of the desired results from an initiative. The foundation created for policy analysis can provide and meet the majority (80 percent) of the needs from the business perspective. The company shouldn't spend too much time fixing and refining the remaining 20 percent unless nothing else is left to be delivered (from the overall subprogram perspective). When 80 percent of the functionality is delivered, the initiative can go in a business-as-usual mode and the remaining 20 percent can be added and refined over time. The focus should switch to the next initiative (claims analysis), which can follow the same pattern. The application of this tenet provides significant business value and keeps business was engaged throughout the program.

Conclusion

Google's "Build, Fail, Fix, Repeat, and Grow" methodology can be applied to BI projects and promises higher success rates for IT in terms of delivering on BI's promise. Your BI program might already be going through an agile transformation, in which case these tenets can be incorporated as part of your broader agile initiative.

Mehul Shah is a senior manager focusing on information management and data governance for a top 10 financial services company. He is an accomplished IT manager with over 12 years of experience in information management and managing large, complex programs and projects related to enterprisewide business intelligence and data warehouse implementations, architecting and building dashboards and BI applications, and work with cross-functional teams. Mehul has an MBA in marketing and analytics and am MS in Computer Science from the University of Maryland and is also a PMP Certified practitioner. You can contact the author at scorpmel@gmail.com or visit his blog at http://mehulshah008.blogspot.com.

Sachin Sinha is director of business intelligence and analytics at ThrivOn where he is responsible for designing innovative architectures, developing methodologies, and delivering of solutions in analytics, business intelligence, and data warehousing that helps clients realize maximum value from their data assets. For over a decade, Mr. Sinha has designed, architected, and delivered data integration, data warehousing, analytics, and business intelligence solutions. Specializing in information management, Mr. Sinha's domestic and international consulting portfolio includes organizations in the financial services, insurance, health-care, pharmaceutical, and energy industries. You can contact the author at ssinha@thrivon.com.

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