Business Intelligence: Deliver Quickly, Provide Controls, Gain User Trust

By Aviva Phillips

Business intelligence (BI) solutions must meet business needs to sustain sponsorship, funding, and support. However, meeting the business needs should not come at the expense of providing an infrastructure with the controls, alerts and workflow processing reports that increase the trust that the users have in the solution and underlying data. These types of controls, alerts and reports often fall victim to meeting tight budgets and timeframes of BI projects.

BI solutions and applications should be embarked upon to meet a business need. Over the years insurance companies' needs have included reducing claim costs through management of claim adjuster workloads, better pricing decisions through monitoring the application of base rates and scheduled modifications, and optimization of producer channels through more complete information.

An empirical mark of a successful BI program is that it generates the demand from the business users for more data and new capabilities. As the questions of today get answered, the questions of tomorrow are uncovered. Many companies begin their journey by developing roadmaps for their BI program that includes the types of benefits they are looking to achieve, when they will achieve those benefits, and how they will build out their BI capabilities in an iterative fashion while delivering upon those needs along the way. Often, these roadmaps will even show the points at which specific departments and executives will benefit.

To ensure business involvement and sustain funding, BI programs look for sponsorship and champions at the highest levels of the organization. This is, especially true when the BI initiative is being driven by IT with the hope of positioning IT as a more responsive partner to their "customers" - the business users.

Historically, it is not uncommon for the business and IT management to feel or perceive that there is a non-responsiveness on the part of the IT department. For instance, it is common to hear that a business manager or department has requested a report and then waited weeks, if not months, until that report was prioritized highly enough within IT to get it developed and delivered.

The hope is that with (BI facilities) such as a data warehouse and data marts in place, reports can be built more quickly and that the business users can use the BI tools in a self-service environment, creating their own reports and even performing ad hoc queries on their own.

What is often left unsaid is that it is important to get high level executive sponsorship and champions to sustain interest and funding for a project that will take considerable time and money to deliver - even for the earliest beneficiaries. In two decades of delivering reporting, data warehousing and business intelligence solutions, the following scenario has played out time and time again.

The project starts with a lot of fanfare including management and executives from multiple departments voicing their information needs. Next is the prioritization of those needs and identification of the data that is required to meet those needs. At this point, there is a lot of excitement, from the business side of the house as well as the technologists, about the promise of business intelligence and the new capabilities that will be made available.

Then, from a business perspective, progress seems to stop while IT spending increases for anywhere from eight months to two years or more while the developers model, acquire, edit, organize, standardize, and transform the data into the single version of the truth.

Many BI projects have either been cut after the initial phase or halted during this period as the costs drag out and IT is seen, once again, as being non-responsive to the reporting needs of the company. One reason this happens is because the business problems change between when the project began and the first delivery of a solution.

Another common reason for IT being seen as non-responsive or taking too long is that interim, temporary solutions have already delivered much of the value at lower cost and in less time. Other BI projects have cut corners during delivery of the first iteration; often resulting in dissatisfaction on the part of the business users ending with the BI program being cut.

There are a number of reasons that IT groups try to cut corners on early iterations of BI programs. Most often corners are cut in an effort to get the data in the hands of the users more quickly.

One area often cut is in the balancing and controlling of the data. Balancing and controlling is the process of proving that data is not lost or altered in a financially material way from the source to the reports. When balance and controls are cut, it is difficult to prove that the data is correct and complete, leading to mistrust of the data and a lack of adoption of the solution as a whole.

Another area that gets cut is "operational reporting" about the processing of the BI solution itself. Some of the BI operational reporting has to do with balance and controls, but it also includes what data was brought in when. Whether or not the BI processing was successful, it is important that the business feel that if they have a question about the numbers, they have somewhere to look to see if the most recent information has been successfully brought into the data warehouse or data mart.

In a number of cases that I have seen, the calculated metrics in the BI solution were proven to be more correct than the existing reports to which they were being reconciled; however, because there was no overall reconciliation of the numbers in the BI solution and the processes that created them, the users chose to continue with the existing reports and not trust the new numbers coming out of the BI solution.

This then, is the current frontier of business intelligence technologies--to reduce the time it takes to create the single version of the truth while still including balance, controls and adequate processing information and, ultimately, to increase the trust the users have in the solution and the data. ETL tools have automated some of these processes. However, with the proper tools, today it is possible to reduce the time it takes to make data available in a BI solution that includes management and control reports related to the processes involved in acquiring the data, managing data acquisition from new sources as they come on-line, and requiring minimal coding efforts. When it is possible to get data in the hands of users in a matter of weeks instead of months, there will be fewer BI projects that are perceived as failures.

New BI technologies must make it easier to start small, growing incrementally with rapid turnaround on enhancements, additional data acquisition, and additional business applications. Tools that help IT to deliver a solution with balance, controls and processing information in a timely fashion increases the likelihood of success and adoption of the BI solution and in turn makes IT appear more responsiveness to the business.

© 2011 PropertyCasualty360, A Summit Business Media website

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