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BI Briefs:
How to Satisfy Business Users Every Time and Make Them Beg for More, Part 1

online columnist Rick Sherman     Column published in DMReview.com
September 25, 2003
  By Rick Sherman

What do business users want from their business intelligence (BI) systems? Information! Information to do their jobs. And they don't want to have to work hard to get it. It's that simple. Why then are so many people frustrated with BI systems? Why do so many businesses feel forced to build shadow IT systems when they can't get information they need from the data warehouse?

Myth 1: All business users want feature-packed BI tools so they can slice and dice data.

Your IT staff partners with the business on most BI projects in order to learn what the business needs and gets buy-in and participation in the development and deployment. That's great in theory...but often the business-user representatives are what we call power users - the ones who use the BI systems the most. On one hand, this makes sense because other business users depend on power users to get data and reports. Relying on power users, however, may lead you in the wrong direction. Here's why:

  • First, power users are closet geeks who like BI tools for the joy of using new technology. Your average business user, on the other hand, has no interest in learning and using yet another tool. That's true no matter how feature-packed the BI tool is or how easy it is to use. If you have to go to training, it's not that easy to use.
  • Second, power users know where the data is (or will learn it) while most business users don't feel they need to master data architecture to get the information needed to do their jobs. The power users' job has become to find, get and deliver the data.
  • Third, power users are the very people who developed the IT shadow systems that compete with the BI system you're developing. Power users just need the data and not necessarily the BI tools because they have Microsoft Access and Excel to deliver information to business users. If your BI system does not meet expectations, the shadow IT system stays in business. Hmm, do I smell a conflict of interest here?
  • Finally, sometimes power users are more like IT than business users. They may not be as in touch with business needs because they have been spending their time on technology.

I'm not suggesting that you stop partnering with business power users. The reality is that they are key influencers for the other business users' acceptance of your BI system. However, don't let them become gatekeepers. You need direct access to mainstream business users not only to understand their needs and discuss the technology, but you also have to sell them on your BI system.

Myth 2: Static reporting is dead.

Six-inch-thick, monthly green-bar reports may be all but dead, but static reports are still more than one-half of a company's BI requirements. No longer printed and delivered with a loud thud on the desk, static reports are distributed over the Web (HTML, PDF, XML), e-mail, pager or cell phone. This makes it easy to deliver them more frequently and even to issue real-time alerts. Static reports are now filtered, summarized and aggregated to the specific needs of each business user, who no longer has to wade through six inches of irrelevant data.

Ignoring the fact that static reports are often just what business users want, we try and shove feature-rich BI tools down their throats. We choose tools because they have lots of features and let users manipulate the data to their hearts' content. But if we just listened, we'd understand that most business users only need static reports containing the information they need to do their jobs.

Sometimes business users do need to drill down into the details and slice and dice the data. Rather than offering the easy, automatic delivery of static reports, the BI systems put the burden of obtaining the information on the business users' shoulders and assume that every time they want information they want to go through this process. It's like the 80/20 rule in reverse - we put 80 percent of the business users through a process that only 20 percent need. Then we wonder why business people use IT shadow systems with Excel? (More on that next month.)

This year the major BI vendors realized the need for production reporting. Cognos and MicroStrategy introduced production reporting capabilities within their product suites. Business Objects purchased Crystal Decisions to offer this capability.

BI systems often replace hundreds or thousands of reports generated from legacy systems. Usually you can't simply replace the reports with slice-and-dice tools. You need to provide replacements that meet the business users' needs. Eventually you will be able to replace these reports with efficient and cost-effective systems but don't expect business users to sign off on the BI system until they feel comfortable they will get the information they need. This is a clear indication that production reports are still a significant deliverable in BI systems.

Next Month

Next month we'll explore a few more myths:

Myth 3: Excel spreadsheets are the work of the devil.
Myth 4: Executives will use dashboards to save them time.
Myth 5: Standardizing on a BI tool will solve the problem.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence.

Rick Sherman has more than 18 years of business intelligence and data warehousing experience, having worked on more than 50 implementations as an independent consultant and as a director/practice leader at a big five firm. He founded Athena IT Solutions, a Boston-based business intelligence consulting firm and is a published author and industry speaker. He can be reached at rsherman@athena-solutions.com or (617) 835-0546.

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