Streamlining BI Projects: How a Techno-Functional Expert Can Help
IT and business users have rarely maximized their work together on BI and data warehousing projects. A new position in your organization may be just the solution you need.
By Sriram Anandan, Managing Consultant, iCreate Software
As with any business-critical technology, DW/BI is a strategic investment organizations leverage to learn more about their operations and enhance forecasting, and there are several solution options that can provide the optimal blend of ROI and TCO.
Although a DW/BI solution enables decisions, organizations often experience a "decision dilemma" when evaluating solutions. For example, in most organizations IT typically pilots the discussions and DW/BI solution providers interact with IT far more than with business users (who are included only when key decisions must be made or approvals secured). IT invariably "sponsors" the solution procurement. If the benefits of the DW/BI solution are intended for business users, then isn't it time to change this approach?
When beginning a project's solution evaluation phase, the DW/BI solution provider's sales or pre-sales team interacts with the organization's IT department. The solution provider shares the benefits and uses of the solution with IT, which then shares the information with business users. The solution provider's delivery team subsequently works with IT during deployment, development, and user acceptance testing (UAT).
Although the DW/BI solution provider educates IT about the business use and impact of the solution, in most cases IT can't address all business areas and requirements because IT does not have sufficient knowledge of the business domain. This gap, if not addressed, will invariably impact the project at a future stage.
Bridging the Divide
To many business users (and often to IT personnel as well), IT can often feel like an island, with workers disconnected from the users they serve. Frequent interactions with business users enhance IT's understanding of business challenges, needs, and processes, which can lead to development of (or selection of) a comprehensive solution. The problem is that in the real world, the business users' involvement has been sub-optimal throughout projects.
From an IT perspective, business users may not be or are not keen to know the technical details. They usually approve a solution selection based on the concepts presented by IT. To business users, the output or end view takes priority over platform compatibility, ETL, data models, and other factors. Compounding the problem is that IT must balance many competing priorities. IT may also feel pressure to accept as valid all requirements business users provide while addressing IT concerns such as processing, cleansing, standardizing, storing, and displaying data, plus coordinating support and maintenance with existing solution providers.
It all boils down to information gaps caused by the disparity in the competencies of business users and IT staff. To close the gap, what ideas organizations can borrow from the IT industry? Developing a techno-functional expert may be the answer.
IT already has technical experts and business teams already have experienced domain experts. What's needed is a blend of the two skills. Techno-functional experts typically have a strong understanding of functional requirements in addition to their sound technical knowledge. They are able to give shape to the business requirements, help minimize information gaps, and ensure effective transfer of business requirements to the solution provider's development and/or team.
To optimize their investments in DW/BI, from preliminary vendor discussions to solution evaluation to procurement to UAT, a techno-functional expert can help business users and IT collaborate innovatively. Such a dedicated expert avoids a common problem we've seen in our practice: having a business unit representative who helps develop requirements during initial discussions but isn't seen again until user acceptance tests.
There are several other benefits to this approach.
- Often a business need might be "conceptually" satiated by a solution but it might not be selected from a "technology compatibility" standpoint. A techno-functional resource helps avoid this scenario as he/she can detect the feasibility and/or business suitability early.
- If an organization is looking for vendor commitment to enhance their solution but its IT representative doesn't have strong knowledge of the subject matter or how the proposed feature would work (or the reason business users need the feature), a DW/BI solution provider might over/under commit to the changes proposed. A techno-functional resource can identify early "false" signals from the solution provider.
- Given a broader understanding across subject areas, techno-functional experts track technology and business updates. They thus have a realistic expectation of the solution.
- Such experts can improve communication across technology and business users. IT professionals typically use "tech" lingo and business have their own set of terms. A techno-functional resource can be an effective bridge between both parties.
Once IT and business users identify the problem and agree on the "techno-functional expert" approach, they need to develop a pool of experts from existing resources -- people who will have the right blend of technical and functional skills. The size and composition of the pool will vary depending on the organization. For instance, the number of techno-functional resources may be found in organizations implementing multiple solutions.
For example, during my work in the analytics division of a large bank, we met with IT periodically to convey operational hindrances, enhance support levels, or discuss server upgrades. During one such meeting, I noticed an IT staff member (who had been working for less than a year in the IT division) with excellent business acumen who understood business needs well and had a good grasp of the technology platform requirements. The meeting was shorter and more effective, and there was a sense of excitement. IT was better able to perform its required tasks. For the next 2 years we interacted only with him. It's no wonder that after that time, this person was heading IT.
Making the techno-functional resource idea work will mean the management's whole-hearted buy in. Also, the right ratio and number of techno-functional resources should be maintained throughout a project and throughout an organization to ensure the full benefit of this position. Frequent programs to develop more techno-functional experts should also be implemented.
Putting "Develop an Expert" into Practice
How can your organization move from agreeing to develop such experts to actually beginning that development? Here are a few tips.
- Select the right candidate. Education, experience, and attitude all have to be part of the basic job requirements. All three are critical components to the candidate's ultimate success.
- Develop a clear, explicit job description and list of responsibilities. Most problems stem from ambiguity about what is required. People expect a "one-person-solves-all" approach, even if the problems are not all that clear. Listing the responsibilities and expectations helps IT and business users identify the problems and track status.
- Provide the appropriate blend of techno-functional personnel in IT and business teams. Emphasize quality, not quantity. Mid- to senior-level techno-functional personnel would be more qualified to overrule a business requirement if necessary. From a numbers perspective at least, one techno-functional expert per ongoing project is likely sufficient, but mammoth projects (such as a DW/BI solution) will require more techno-functional personnel.
- Train employees well. Although organizations provide technical training for IT and restrict business training to business users, it is essential for your experts to understand both. Ongoing comprehensive training can be handled by existing techno-functional resources who understand both the technical aspect and the overall operational activities of the bank. This will ensure a wider/deeper techno-functional resource pool.
- Budget appropriately. Instituting a techno-functional practice by hiring good resources should be seen as a strategic investment that will deliver value in the long run. How much an organization wishes to invest depends on the number and scale of DW/BI initiatives.
- Measure effectiveness. Although there may be no precise science, one idea I've found effective is to maintain records of problems that existed before and after you have used techno-functional resources. If time is money, you'll likely find that the time (and thus resources) spent in vendor discussions will decrease.
Sriram Anandan is a senior functional expert with over a decade of experience in banking and financial services. Much of his career has been spent working at a large global bank in operations, analytics, and sales functions. Sriram is currently a managing consultant with banking decision enablement solutions company iCreate Software, where he is part of their banking BI solutions architecture team. You can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.