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Do Your Team a Favor: Stop Acting Like IT

(Caution: This blog may contain ideas that are hazardous to your career.)

I’ve argued in previous blogs that business intelligence (BI) professionals must think more like business people and less like IT managers if they are to succeed. However, while many BI professionals have their hearts in the right place, their actions speak differently. They know what they need to do but can’t seem to extricate themselves from an IT mindset. That takes revolutionary thinking and a little bit of luck.

Radical Thinking

So, here’s a radical idea that will help you escape the cultural bonds of IT: don’t upgrade your BI software.

Now, if you gasped after reading that statement, you’re still an IT person at heart. An IT person always believes in the value of new software features and fears losing vendor support and leverage by not staying fairly current with software licenses and versions.

Conversely, the average business person sees upgrades as a waste of time and money. Most don’t care about the new functionality or appreciate the financial rationale or architectural implications. To them, the upgrade is just more “IT busywork.”

Here’s another radical idea: stick with the BI tools you have. Why spend a lot of money and time migrating to new platform when the one you have works? So what if the tools are substandard and missing features? Is it really a problem if the tools force your team to work overtime to make ends meet? Who are the tools really designed to support: you or the users?

In the end, it’s not the tools that matter, it’s how you apply them. Case in point: in high school, I played clarinet in the band. One day, I complained vociferously to the first chair, a geeky guy named Igor Kavinsky who had an expensive, wooden clarinet (which I coveted), that my cheap, plasticized version wasn’t working very well and I needed a replacement. Before I could list my specific complaints, he grabbed my clarinet, replaced the mouthpiece, and began playing.

Lo and behold, the sound that came from my clarinet was beautiful, like nothing I had ever produced! I was both flabbergasted and humiliated. It was then I realized that the problem with my clarinet not the instrument but me! Igor showed me that it’s the skill of the practitioner, not the technology, that makes all the difference.

Reality Creeps In

Igor not withstanding, if you’re a good, well-trained IT person, you probably think my prior suggestions are unrealistic, if not ludicrous. In the “real world,” you say, there is no alternative to upgrading and migrating software from time to time. These changes—although painful—improve your team’s ability to respond quickly to new business needs and avoid a maintenance nightmare. And besides, many users want the new features and tools, you insist.

And of course, you are right. You have no choice.

Yet, given the rate of technology obsolescence and vendor consolidation, your team probably spends 50% of its time upgrading and migrating software. And it spends its remaining time maintaining both new and old versions (because everyone knows that old applications never die.) All this busywork leaves your team with precious little time and resources to devise new ways to add real value to the business.

Am I wrong? Is this a good use of your organization’s precious capital? What would a business person think about the ratio of maintenance to development dollars in your budget?

Blame the Vendors. It’s easy to blame software vendors for this predicament. In their quest for perpetual growth and profits, vendors continually sunset existing products, forcing you (the hapless customer) with no choice but to upgrade or lose support and critical features. And just when you’ve fully installed their products, they merge with another company and reinvent their product line, forcing another painful migration. It’s tempting to think that these mergers and acquisitions are simply diabolical schemes by vendors to sell customers expensive, replacement products. Just ask any SAP BI customer!

Breaking the Cycle

If this describes your situation, what do you do about it? How do you stop thinking like an IT person and being an IT cuckold to software vendors?

Most BI professionals are burrowed more deeply in an IT culture than they know. Breaking free often requires a cataclysmic event that rattles their cages and creates an opening to escape. This might be a change in leadership, deregulation, a new competitor, or a new computing platform. Savvy BI managers seize such opportunities to reinvent themselves and change the rules of the game.

Clouds Coming. Lucky for you, the Cloud—or more specifically, Software as a Service (SaaS)—is one of those cataclysmic events. The Cloud has the potential to liberate you and your team from an overwrought IT culture that is mired in endless, expensive upgrades and painful product migrations, among other things.

The beauty of a multi-tenant, cloud-based solution is that you never have to upgrade software again. In a SaaS environment, the upgrades happen automatically. To business and IT people, this is magical: cool new features appear and no one had to do any work or suffer any inconvenience. SaaS also eliminates vendor lock in since you can easily change cloud vendors (as long as you maintain your data) by just pointing users to a new URL. The Cloud is a radical invention that promises to alter IT culture forever.

Getting Started. To break the cycle, start experimenting with cloud-based BI solutions. Learn how these tools work and who offers them. Use the cloud for prototypes or small, new projects. Some cloud BI vendors offer a 30-day free trial while more scalable solutions promise to get you up and running quickly. If you have a sizable data warehouse, leave your data on premise and simply point the cloud BI tools to it. Performance won’t suffer.

Unless you experiment with ways to break free from an IT culture, you never will. Seize the opportunity that the Cloud affords and others that are sure to follow. Carpe diem!

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on June 25, 2010


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