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"Purple People": The Key to BI Success

I went to a small, liberal arts college in western Massachusetts whose mascot is a “purple cow” -- presumably chosen because of the large number of cows that graze in the foothills of nearby mountains that glisten a faint purple as the afternoon sun fades into twilight.

Although our mascot didn’t strike fear in the hearts of our athletic opponents, that was fine by us. We were an academic institution first and foremost. But, it didn’t hurt that our sports teams tended to win more often than not.

We loved our “purple cow” mascot because this bit of serendipity made it hard for others to classify us: most of us so-called "purple people" weren’t just students or athletes or artists but a versatile blend of the three.

I’ve been a “purple person” for some time. And now I want to invite you to be one, too.

Of course, I am not asking you to enroll in my alma mater. I think most of us are too old to qualify at this point! What I am asking, however, is for you to exhibit the versatility of mind and experience that is required to deliver a successful business intelligence (BI) solution.

The Color Purple

The color purple is formed by mixing two primary colors: red and blue. These colors symbolize strong, distinct, and independent perspectives. In the world of BI, let’s say that “red” stands for the BI technologists and “blue” represents the business departments.

In most organizations, these two groups are at loggerheads. Neither side trusts or respects the other. This is largely because neither understands the pressures, deadlines, and challenges that the other faces. And, there is a yawning cultural gulf between the two groups that magnifies their mutual hostility: they speak a different language, report to different executives, travel in different social circles, and possess different career ambitions.

In contrast, a purple person is neither red nor blue. They are neither pure technologist, nor pure business; they are a blend of both. They are “purple people”!

BI requires “purple people” to succeed. Business intelligence is not like most IT disciplines; it requires a thorough and ongoing understanding of business issues, processes, tactics, and strategy to succeed. BI is about delivering information that answers business questions. And since those questions change from day to day and week to week and are often shaped by the larger market landscape, BI solutions can’t succeed unless they continuously adapt.

The only way to create “adaptable systems”-- intrinsically a contradiction in terms--is to find people who are comfortable straddling the worlds of business and technology. These “purple people” can speak the language of business and translate that into terms that IT people can understand. Conversely, they can help business people understand how to exploit the organization’s information repository and analytical tools to solve pressing business problems.

Purple people are key intermediaries who can reconcile business and IT and forge a strong and lasting partnership that delivers real value to the organization.

Finding “Purple People”

So, where can you find “purple people”? Although I’m proud of my college, I wouldn’t suggest that you go there to find them, as smart and ambitious as they might be. In fact, I wouldn’t seek out any college graduates, or by extension, the junior staff of large systems integrators. These folks lack experience in both “red” and “blue” camps. At best, they serve as translators; but lacking real-world knowledge and experience, they always lose something in translation.

The best “purple people” are the proverbial switch hitters. They have strong credentials and a solid reputation in either a business or IT department, and then they switch sides. Their versatility creates an immediate impact.

For example, a financial analyst who joins the BI team brings with him or her knowledge of the finance department and its people, processes, and challenges. They can speak candidly and clearly with former colleagues when hashing out issues and clarifying requirements. They know the difference between “needs” and “wishes” and can create a realistic priority list that works for both sides.

BI directors can straddle both worlds by spending as much time talking with business counterparts as with the technologists on their team. In addition, they should act like business people and manage the BI department like a business: they should craft a strategy document that specifies the department’s mission, vision, values, and strategy and establish metrics for customer success and measure performance continuously.

And, most importantly, BI directors should recruit business people from every department to serve on their BI teams and serve as liaisons to their former departments. These “purple people” form the glue that bonds BI team and business together.


By definition, business intelligence leverages information technology to drive business insight. As such, pure technologists or pure business people can’t harness BI successfully. BI needs “purple people” to forge tight partnerships between business people and technologists and harness information for business gain.

People often ask me about career opportunities in BI. It should be obvious by now, but my answer is: “Become a purple person. If you straddle business and technology, you are indispensible.”

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on April 29, 2010


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