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Marketing BI In House: Don't Get Lost in the Luster

When many vendors begin glorifying the same shiny object, you usually can be sure they've found one more way to make you nervous about falling behind your competition. Take big data, for example.

One common marketing technique is to make people feel inadequately prepared for tomorrow. To this end, shiny objects often cause people to overlook their strengths and to go chasing after a new promise. Many marketers make a living by cranking out one new promise after another, but no matter how many vendors and industry celebrities glorify a supposed innovation, it simply may not belong in your enterprise -- at least not yet.

As a user who studies technology and marketing, I believe vendors are exaggerating the promise of big data. The buzz that surrounds the technology has the characteristics of the marketing campaigns for every shiny object I've seen, and I have inspected many.

Good marketing makes a strong case for big data, but you're the one who should help decide whether the big-data shine is revealing or concealing value for your organization. As the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold.

To lead our users to a sensible conclusion, we must be a lighthouse, do a reality check, and intelligently evaluate glorious testimonials.

Be a Light in the Buzz Fog

Guiding your in-house customers through the technological marketing hype is an important part of your job. It's a job you should desire; it's an opportunity to lead. Be sure to talk to users in their language or you'll just add to the fog and they'll find someone else they can understand.

I recently watched company executives skip right over their IT department and hire an outside firm to get them on the road to data warehousing. IT wanted to be the "answer man" but could not speak the language of the business.

As the lighthouse in the harbor, you must prevent marketers and vendors from controlling the technology conversations in your enterprise. That requires you to have a clearer idea than they do about your business. To be honest, I sometimes control conversations through strategic communication, but only when people cannot find the words to express themselves or to locate a problem.

You have the expertise to help users understand the technical claims that vendors make. When the marketing fog rolls in, get busy and blow it away! To increase visibility, you must be diligent, not impulsive. You must study and think your way through the issues. Strong opinions are not enough. Opinionated people are lazy thinkers. Pick through the marketing claims, evaluate them in the context of your enterprise, and then humbly and confidently tell your users the truth as best as you can see it.

Do a Reality Check

I'm using big data as an example, so let's do a reality check on it. When you hear vendors pitching big data, do you learn how an enterprise qualifies for big data, or do you hear about the sparkling advantages of big data?

I would be looking for answers to such questions as:

  • Are your organization's operations currently set up to make good use of the data you already have?
  • Does anyone care whether the workers on the assembly line know when they're getting close to the maximum scrap rate of the different metals they're fabricating?
  • Does Accounting know when Purchasing needs to be told that the current vendors are using unreliable third-party providers?
  • Does Purchasing know when to warn Accounting of the impact that a hike in oil and corn prices will have on the timing of purchases?
  • Does Shipping know how to schedule vehicle maintenance on the basis of weather and mileage-plus-cargo weight?
  • Do you know enough about the inner workings of the departments to even realize the ways IT can create more solutions for them?

Most vendors are not going to ask those questions. Those that do are looking out for your best interests. You should be asking such questions already, because the answers tell whether data is a priority in your enterprise.

If you aren't delivering BI capabilities to operations, the last thing you need is more streams of data. If you aren't harvesting your structured data yet, your organization does not have a mindset for unstructured data continuously streaming into your system.

Monetizing unstructured data requires a special skill set, even greater business knowledge, and stronger relationships with the business side of your enterprise. The closer you want to peer into the interior of a department to discover how your technology can enhance it, the more proof the department will want that you are a business-minded technologist.

When users welcome you into their operations, you are in a position to make a significant contribution. Because most of your competitors probably aren't doing a very good job of BI, you should be able to enjoy important advantages by harvesting the data you are already collecting (or the data you're already able to collect).

Then you can consider whether you need big data badly enough to make the major shifts it requires. Sticking to the fundamentals prevents shiny objects from being too distracting.

Can your enterprise survive without tooling up for big data? A better question is, why do experts keep saying there's a massive shortage of competent BI professionals? Such a shortage tells us most companies might not have the personnel required for big data, the changes it requires, and the kind of analytics it offers.

What about All Those Success Stories?

Interpret testimonials with great caution. Ask yourself: What does the big data vendor know about how to make it work in companies of my size or type? The answer often is, "Not much."

In his Q&A with TDWI, Marc Demarest says it just right: "The poster children for big data are usually companies far more well-funded and well-resourced than the companies I typically work with. They're companies that can afford to run experiments and fail. I envy them. That's not the world I work in."

Just as it's proper to review the findings of other professionals before citing them in a publication, you must carefully evaluate testimonials before acting on them. They may be totally irrelevant to your situation. Here are a few questions about big data testimonials:

  • Is the poster-child company a much larger organization than mine, and does it have a much larger and better established clientele than mine does at this time?
  • Does big data have anything to do with growing my enterprise at this phase of our history, or is big data something we might take advantage of only after we are well beyond where we are now?
  • Is it even possible to see what big data would look like in my enterprise, given the changes in personnel and processes that it would involve?

It Could Be Never

Most enterprises may never need big data in its current rendition. Their hands are already full of variables and information. One university uses 200 data points to profile its students. Neither the deans nor IT know what to do with that information, only that someone advised them to collect it. A good analytics mindset has never been in place, and anything like big data would only raise stress levels through the roof.

Marketers are famous for saying, "We're not here to distract you with another shiny object," just before they introduce their latest fog machine. Look closely to see if the shining fog is revealing or concealing value for your enterprise.

Max T. Russell invites your suggestions about future article topics. As owner of Max and Max Communications, he works behind the scenes to promote individuals and projects in a variety of industries. He and his identical twin, Max S., are heavy technology users who have been discussing and dissecting the challenges of IT in the workplace for the past 18 years. You can contact the author at .

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