A Guide to Delivering and Implementing a Successful Business Intelligence Strategy

Implementing a business intelligence strategy for any organization can be a daunting task. Oftentimes you are met with skepticism, outrage about a changing toolset, and a very real fear of taking someone’s job away from them. As a senior business intelligence consultant who specializes in global retail analytics, in my last tenure I was fortunate enough to have three cracks at implementing a BI strategy, with two of them failing incredibly well (I know, a strange choice of words, but I’ll get into that a little further down).

A business intelligence strategy is: The art of planning and delivering data-driven insights to drive sustained growth and innovation. I use the word ‘art’ because all of BI is some culmination of data and artistic ability. Business data must be presented to the organization in a way that any person can understand and digest the information at-hand, and thus must be designed and set-up so that it does so effectively. This presentation of data is the ‘art’ of BI.

This blog post will offer  specific real-world insights for delivering an effective business intelligence strategy. Far from an end-all-be-all definitive guide, this piece offers  a collection of real-world examples, tried and tested, that showcase what a successful business intelligence strategy looks like, and illustrates how you can avoid pitfalls.

First Things First: Establish the Right Foundation for a Business Intelligence Strategy

Before we get into what an effective strategy should look like, we need to set the foundation for an effective business intelligence strategy.

Articulate Your Vision and Goal

Prior to diving into a strategy, first outline what you want to accomplish as part of this strategy, i.e. what is the overall vision. An effective vision might be something like:

  • At XYZ Inc., our vision for business intelligence is that it’s the one-stop shop for analytics where key business performance measurements are clearly defined, understood and auditable.
  • We would also like to be agile enough to capture the changing needs of our business and better support our partners.

The vision should be broad but also concise enough to create a plan that can be implemented. A key question I like to answer as a part of the vision is: What needs to happen in order to move our organization up the maturity ladder, from a data perspective? 

Engage and Build a Team of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

The team responsible for creating and deploying a business intelligence strategy should consist of cross-functional, highly data-driven individuals who will be your main insight into the business. These individuals will help with the following:

  • Understanding business lingo – e.g. “What do they mean when they say COMP vs. Growth, and how are they different?”
  • They will give you a pair of eyes and ears in key business meetings to understand conversations that are happening and help pinpoint gaps.
  • They will allow you to see what others in the organization think of the current BI landscape – what they like, and specifically what they don’t like. It’s important to know how the BI team is perceived within the organization.
  • They will also be the first business eyes on the BI analytics and reports you create for the organization, and engaging this team early and often will allow you to get real, unfiltered feedback that will help optimize BI processes.

Be a Revenue Generator Not a Cost Center

As early as possible, you want to safely generate some space between your BI team and your internal IT team. The reason here is two-fold: you never want to be looked at as a Cost Center, which is how most internal IT teams are seen. You always want to be a Revenue Generator, as this will allow you to get away from the notion that your team is simply IT.

Make sure your BI team is positioned as a strategic group of individuals that drive business growth via innovation in data-driven insights.

Next Steps: Planning and Delivering an Effective Business Intelligence Strategy

Ensure Executive Sponsorship

Every major BI initiative you take within your organization needs to be driven by an executive, period. The reason why – other than it coming from someone with a voice at “the table” – is that executive investment validates the fact that data is important to the organization.

An executive sponsor will also help get alignment across the organization on the following:

  • What are our key measures?
  • How are they defined?
  • What are executives speaking about and what gaps can you fill?
  • Funding and removal of red-tape.

*Note how having the SME team already prepares you a little for this.

The executive sponsor should be someone who values data, has a deep understanding of the benefits, and more importantly, understands how damaging it can be not to have accurate and timely numbers. My go-to sponsor is always the Chief Financial Officer, as this is someone who’s rooted in numbers and data. Another benefit of having the CFO as your executive sponsor is that funding gets easier (in most cases).

Define Organizational Metrics

This is the first time you bring your SMEs and executive sponsor(s) together in a room to define a set of measures that will become the organizational KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). This should happen as an organically guided conversation that starts with asking some basic questions:

  • What reports are effective and why?
  • Which reports are not effective and why?
  • What’s redundant?

 This will allow you to tailor subsequent meetings and get your KPIs ironed out and cleanly defined. You should not exceed more than 15-20 KPIs and you should be sure to make them highly auditable and configurable to allow for agility.

Create a Feedback Loop

I can’t stress this enough: a constant feedback loop will either make or break your project. Having recurring biweekly meetings with stakeholders to talk about the following will be the key to your success:

  • What is our current status – do we have any obstacles that are creating a stoppage in work?
  • How are we progressing? On-track or off-track? Do we have any resource constraints?

Showcase your work, even if it’s very basic, as this will allow you to receive constant input to ensure you haven’t misunderstood anything.

Plan for Future Growth by Assessing the Current Situation (Not the Toolset)

Too often we silo ourselves into thinking our current situation will be consistent with our future, and this is never the case. What needs to happen here is an effort by varying IT teams to perform a full-scale assessment of the current technology stack. The questions to ask here are:

  • How many servers do we have? Physical vs. Virtual? What is the company server policy?
  • How quickly is our data growing – are we growing at a scale of 2-4 times, and will this be consistent 5-10 years from now? (We are lucky to live in a time where computing power and space has never been cheaper, so don’t be stingy here.)
  • What does our development environment look like today, and what should it look like in the future?
  • Do we have any security concerns?

All of these answers will help not just in creating a budget for the strategy, but also in preparing you for the future and any unforeseen company growth (this is a good problem to have). It’s a win-win really.

Conduct Interviews with Business Partners

This is where having a team of SMEs will be incredibly beneficial. Use each SME to set-up and conduct interviews within their business group/pod to understand the following:

  • What data do you use today?
  • What issues are you facing daily/weekly?
  • What business questions are you trying to solve?
  • What works for you and what doesn’t?

These answers will give you some incredible, in-depth knowledge on how other teams use data within the organization and will help you establish a working relationship with many cross-functional teams. These answers will also illuminate some of the innovative tactics teams implement to compensate for the lack of a reliable, timely and mature business intelligence technology stack.

Question Your Business Intelligence Toolset

Now for one of the most important decisions you will make throughout this entire process: Can we meet the business needs of tomorrow with the toolset we have today?

It’s definitely a loaded question, and you should think of breaking it into smaller issues such as:

  • What is our data integration tool? Does it work for the future? Do we have the skills internally to make it our tool, or should we look at other tools? (Always look at other tools. Sometimes it gives you great ideas and insights into what others in your industry are doing.)
  • Do we have the skillset and time to build an internal data warehouse/data lake architecture? Should we engage with a vendor?
  • For reporting, can we do the following with our technology stack:
    • Are we mobile-enabled?
    • Can we provide self-service reporting?
    • Can we generate static, highly formatted reports with delivery mechanisms such as PDFs, Excel Files, CSVs?
    • How quickly can we turn-around a small to medium task? (Speed of delivery is key.)
    • Where is our skillset gap? Do we engage in training for our internal employees?

All of these questions will help you create a robust strategy around the business intelligence stack that will help your organization mature from a data perspective.

Don’t Forget On-Brand Delivery

Most organizations have a color-scheme, font preference, logo style, etc. – keep in mind that creating any deliverable report should be see as an extension of the organization. What I mean by this is, if you make a report or dashboard, spend a considerable amount of time on its look and feel.

For this design process, use the feedback loop we discussed in step three, and engage your SMEs. This will allow for easy adoption, as everyone wants to play with something that looks inviting and clean.

Take the two dashboards below as an example. Both are visually appealing and hold a vast amount of information. The difference is the one on the top is clearly organized, titled and tells a story. The one on the bottom may show more information but it’s cluttered, hard to follow, and feels overwhelming.

Hold Lunch-and-Learn Training Sessions

How different teams view you within the organization will help drive the success of your business intelligence strategy (I can’t stress enough how important it is for an organization to be comfortable with what you’ve delivered).

You can deliver everything you set out to – an easy to use, clean, on-brand BI system – and provide your team a training document for using it. But it’s really face-to-face training and engagement that will drive the conversation from, “Oh look, another new report and training document – how am I supposed to keep track of all the changes, and how does it even help me?” to “Look, the team has created a new report and are having a lunch-and-learn to take questions about how it pertains to our specific business need.”

While larger organization-wide lunch-and-learns are great, it’s also important to let your users know that they can also schedule smaller, pod-focused training sessions just for them. It creates a smaller group where individuals are less shy about asking more basic, but often critical questions, than they would be if they were in a larger group. 

Create a Support and Communication Plan

Outline a simple mechanism for users to log tickets, ask questions, and raise concerns about auditability and validity of reports. Also plan for support outside of regular working hours – weekends, holidays, special events, etc.

Create a portal where your users can check their report status and look for new feature announcements. Having a robust communication plan will also help business users gain confidence. Communicate any outages, changes and enhancements — and always, always create an environment where feedback is not only appreciated but used as a mechanism for growth and maturity within the organization.

Deliver a Few Highly Visible, Quick-to-Market Reports

The best way to reward an executive sponsor is to deliver a report that you work on (in conjunction with them) that is highly visible, easily adoptable and quick-to-market.

This will buy you some much-needed confidence within your organization because it showcases not only your ability as a team but also your willingness to learn, adapt, change, work cross-functionally and be a strategic partner. It also validates your team as the experts in all things data.

Start small, crawl before you walk, walk before you run, and remember there isn’t a one-size fits all.

Fail Hard, Fail Fast, and Learn Even Faster 

This is by far my favorite part of the strategy. There is a misconception that failure is bad. I mean yes, no one wants to fail; but if you aren’t failing often, you aren’t pushing hard enough. Create an environment that allows for failure because you’re pushing technology and concepts; only by being on that edge can you really do something truly innovative.

This isn’t an excuse to under deliver or be okay with imperfections – not at all. Instead, this is more a mindset for encouraging you to try new things, but also to learn and grow.

The reason I had success in my last tenure was because I was given the opportunity to be disruptive. In that process there were times when I failed hard and failed fast, but each failure created more insight and a more refined strategy.

Summary

The above guidelines can give you a starting point for organizing your business intelligence implementation strategy. Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” business intelligence strategy, these guidelines allow for a level of adaptability and personalization and can be adapted to fit your organizational and team needs.

As with any good framework, the goal is to bind tried and tested best practices into a model that helps effectively guide business intelligence strategy development. For questions on what business intelligence strategy would be best for your organization’s processes and objectives, be sure to connect with our business intelligence team today – we look forward to talking with you about how you can optimize your BI strategy.