RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Say "Yes" to Your Business Users

Say "yes" when you mean it but be realistic about expectations and limitations.

By Max T. Russell (Max and Max Communications) and Roger Cogswell (Centric Consulting)

Too many users know IT as the people who say no. Your BI team should be ready to give an informed "yes" whenever possible, because business leaders in your enterprise form opinions of you on the basis of how you handle that little word, yes.

Furthermore, you have outside competitors who are willing to say "yes" to everything under the sun. Some competitors actually are capable of becoming your business users' heroes, if you would kindly allow it. You must not.

Understanding how you are judged on the basis of a yes -- and sometimes no -- helps you build a reputation as the BI team that wants to be the source of workable solutions for the organization you serve.

Understand the Actual Need

Sensible managers understand that at least a little time is needed to come up with just the right fix for their problems. Take time to accurately define the problem at hand, then give a realistic, helpful response.

You might say, "We're certain we can make that happen. We can think of a short-term solution, but it'll be a waste of money because it will only delay the real solution. Let us investigate our options so we can come up with a workable plan in the next two weeks."

The director of an urban government agency wanted to isolate the mysterious, troublesome variables affecting his budget's bottom line. He wanted an up-to-the-minute, interactive report listing key performance metrics for utilities consumption, and he wanted to sort 30,000 consumers by a dozen population characteristics.

He asked IT if this could be done.

Realizing that the current information system was not capable of providing reasonable response times for such a report, IT said, "No, we cannot do that."

That didn't stop the agency director. As a businessman, he was used to tackling any problem standing in his way. He approached an outside BI consultant who asked one very simple question: "How many of those 30,000 rows of information do you and your managers actually need to see on the computer screen at one time?"

The question was just as simple for the director to answer, but nobody else had asked him. He needed to see only the top 20 rows when listed in order by each of the dozen attributes.

Equipped now with the essential requirements, the agency director was able to explain to IT that he didn't need to retrieve and re-sort the entire population data after all. The technologists had the expertise to provide the report but were able to do so only because the agency director had followed through on his own confidence that a solution existed.

IT could have said at the very beginning, "We believe your request is smart and that we can fulfill it. We need a week or two to bring in another perspective on the best solution."

The technologists' inability to say "yes" told him that IT was not the place to go for answers to tough questions. His confidence was in the outside consultant, whom IT could just as easily have consulted for a little extra perspective.

Feeling the Love

A "yes" sends a powerful message to your in-house customers. They don't want a "yes" to ideas that turn out to be foolish; they want a realistic response backed up with thoughtful rationale and interaction that shows your BI team desires a solution as badly as they do.

They want to feel the love.

A sales team manager wanted her salespeople in the field to have important information about customers and about high-quality prospects who were located near the customers the salespeople met with. Many months passed and the sales manager's request was still on the bottom of IT's priority list. IT had not given a literal "no," but resources would not be allocated.

After several more months, the sales manager took action. She contracted the work to an outside consulting firm with no relationship to her company, and the firm completed the work satisfactorily.

However, two years of utilizing the solution were followed by corporate restructuring. Sales districts were modified, necessitating extensive changes to the solution the salespeople had learned to rely on. The people who had built the solution had moved on, and IT gave a quick "no" when the sales manager requested a modification of the existing, unsupported application.

When last we checked, the sales manager's problem had not been solved. If IT had desired to say "yes" to at least consider the original request, it could have tried to find a solution. But IT was mired in other concerns that cluttered its vision. Saying yes would have benefited the sales team, and you can hardly benefit a sales team without strengthening the enterprise.

IT truly was under tremendous pressure to complete other projects but missed a grand opportunity to show the love.

IT could have said, "Let's talk about your needs. If we don't have the resources to do the job ourselves, we'll help you find a contractor to spearhead it. We'll also help you approach executive management for whatever additional allocation may be required because we know you'll need it."

Instead, IT's lack of interest -- demonstrated by a naked no -- was interpreted as, "We're sort of sorry, but we have more important things to do."

Know Your Team's Capabilities

Some BI teams are bold enough to say "yes" to the most difficult request they can imagine. Some teams may have the depth of skill and experience to deliver on every promise they make, but they are careful to promise within the limits of time and money.

Saying yes requires that you know your team's readiness to deliver a solution. Otherwise your "yes" will eventually be taken as expensive, foolhardy optimism.

The board of directors of a large coupon startup had promised its many stockholders a set of monthly reports of performance metrics by quarter's end. Existing processes were capturing raw operational data into partly normalized data structures designed to store the data rapidly.

When the board asked if those reports could, in fact, be provided in timely fashion, IT gave a shaky "yes" but had too little BI experience as a team to adequately consider structuring the data for rapid retrieval and reorganization. Most of them were also unaware of the gigantic advantages of data warehousing technologies for that kind of reporting.

The more vocal technologists decided the team's best effort would be a divide-and-conquer strategy: they would split the reports among their staff and work on them individually, from inception to completion.

They gave no time or attention to building reusable data structures that would have proved useful in the development of multiple reports. Each individual wasted a great deal of time on the same work being performed by one or more other team members. The redundancy made it impossible for IT to say "yes" to urgent requests coming from the marketing and fulfilment departments.

Despite the technologists' valiant effort, their original "yes" translated into a loud "no can do." The quarter ended with too few usable reports to satisfy the board of directors or the stakeholders.

What was the real problem? IT lacked commitment to continuous improvement and therefore wasn't qualified to say "yes." An outside consulting firm was called in to do the job right. Not just any BI team can say "yes."

Find a Way to Say It

Say "yes" whenever you can. Desire to say it. Be realistic about any limitations.

Sometimes your "yes" will be contingent on the approval of other people. You can say, "Yes, we can do that if you can get upper management to provide resources" or "Sure, we'd be happy to help make that happen -- if you can get the engineering department to go along with it."

State your willingness while separating yourself from variables that lie beyond your control. Whenever possible -- in good conscience -- say "yes." Your customers judge you by it.

Max T. Russell helps business and IT address communication problems and improve their in-house marketing. You can contact the author at maxt@maxtrussell.com.

Roger Cogswell's interest in organizing information for rapid storage and recognition goes back to his childhood desire to pass exams. As a Centric manager and BI consultant, he works with clients to build high-performing information delivery teams. You can contact him at roger.cogswell@alum.mit.edu.

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