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Decision Responsibility

  Article published in DM Direct Special Report
May 2, 2006 Issue
  By Jim Ericson

Appeared in BI Review Newsletter February 9, 2006

Managers and executives are judged, hired and fired by their performance against a variety of business goals and challenges, but they are made primarily in two ways: by the skills they possess in managing people and by the quality of their decisions.

In the old school ascendance model, executives advanced through a variety of posts on their way to divisional and corporate titles. When I worked at the General Electric subsidiary NBC as a managing editor, my boss had come to manage our group from a prior role in finance, and was off to another GE unit by the time I left to pursue my current career. Though big institutions like GE, P&G or Intel still offer such career paths, you wonder if that sort of institution remains relevant in our new, transitional working world. Because of our focus on core competency and the growth of outsourcing, you'd be inclined to doubt that a good contextual growth path even remains for an executive in a large organization. Add to this the current and important focus on business processes (which we regularly champion in BI Review) and you might well conclude that today's compartmentalized worker is a poor candidate to be a qualified decision-maker in the organizational sense.

You might also be right. I didn't originate these thoughts, nor am I alone in considering them. We have deliberately and collectively arrived at the current state of affairs, made all the more visible by our attempts to marry technology to decision-making. I am not suggesting that rule-based decision-making shouldn't spread, or that valuable service providers should not continue to grow and prosper. But there is a blowback that appears to be universal, since even older technologists wax nostalgic at the prospect of this decision-making gap. I interviewed data warehousing icon Ralph Kimball for an article in DM Review Magazine, in which Ralph recalled his own seminal work at the Palo Alto Research Center, where the basics for PC computing as we know it today were largely worked out. The experience provided context for his great career that continues to this day. More tellingly, Kimball related the difficulty presented to younger workers who now compete in an environment of constant change, where key executives come and go and priorities and technology change even faster. Ralph spends most of his time these days teaching at Kimball University, where he instructs students that the best thing they can do is to live in end-user departments as long as possible and be perpetually torn as to whether their allegiance should belong to the business or technology side of their workplace. Such graduates are not common in the market today but those that are offer valuable resumes, because in-house excellence is what's in demand - or ought to be. "I personally like India and the people who live there quite a lot," Kimball told me. "But cleaning the data in an ETL environment or adjusting the display of KPIs on the BI tool requires constantly going back and forth with the end users and data experts in the context of the business [emphasis mine]. You can't just write a spec and ship it off and expect everything will turn out right."

Put another way, the common managerial mentality of headcount and cost control might well abrogate the higher calling of information responsibility. Consultant Bob Charette is already familiar to readers of BI Review for his column last year that questioned the wisdom of handing risk decision-making to lawyers and accountants in the post-Sarbanes-Oxley environment. Not coincidentally, his next column, appearing in our March issue, is titled "Information Responsibility." Bob writes that Peter Drucker's notion of the Information Worker also requires a credential of personal integrity and accountability to own and hand along key information when things "don't look right." As he points out, one need go no farther than the disasters of Space Shuttle Columbia and Hurricane Katrina, where still-smoking guns point to a lack of contextual decision-making skills. "We have gotten so caught up in process versus performance that people cannot distinguish that the outcome is important and how you get to the outcome is important," he says. "I think approaching business intelligence without people who possess basic decision-making skills is ignorant and dangerous."

Charette has co-authored a manuscript for an upcoming book to help parents instill decision-making skills in their children, and it's easy to see where this is going. In a controlled environment where parents make all the choices for their progeny rather than give them opportunities to make their own decisions -- the chance to innovate or the equal lesson of failure -- we'll eventually reap the harvest. As it applies to the corporate world, we might as well ask if we have already created a generation of 30-year-old 10-year-olds. When I talk to Bob and others, I realize this is neither an indictment of work being done to improve business process management nor another pitch for performance management. It is the culture of speed and transition. It is the status quo.

"These days, companies want somebody right out of school with 30 years experience," Charette says. "So where can future project or program managers get their experience today? It's pretty damn hard when there's no factory floor. Even in IT we just don't offer positions. We want somebody with specific technical expertise to solve today's problems."

What's clear is that there are some basic tradeoffs between management by headcount and operational excellence. The extent to which big-picture reality amends the thinking of senior managers will rest on their own decision-making abilities, which is what should have landed them their jobs in the first place.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI) and Corporate Performance Management (CPM).

Jim Ericson is editor in chief of Business Intelligence Review (www.bireview.com) and editorial director of DM Review, SourceMedia publications. You can reach him at James.Ericson@sourcemedia.com.

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