DM Review Published in DM Review Online in August 2005.
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BI Briefs: Business Intelligence Goes Back to the Future, Part 2: Couples Therapy for IT and Business Users

by Rick Sherman

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed several business intelligence problems that keep cropping up year after year.

  • Multiple "single versions of the truth"
  • Data shadow systems that breed like rabbits

Now we're tackling the subject of relationships - namely the relationship between IT and business users.

Have you ever wondered why companies buy software licenses from BI vendors for hundreds or even thousands of "seats" and only use a small fraction of them? Or why business people continue to use Microsoft Excel as their primary BI product even though their IT group selected a different BI tool and may even want to ban Excel? And why is it that IT groups boast about the corporate data warehouse's terabytes of data while business users lament their lack of data?

The underlying answer to questions like these is that business and IT groups have "relationship issues." Maybe they need couples therapy.

Both sides are talking, but it seems like nobody is really listening or understanding. Does IT have a sense of what the business users really need? Do the business users really care how IT is going to deliver the data?

Part of the problem is that each side has expertise in different subjects. The business people concentrate on areas like marketing or finance. The IT department focuses on technology. IT groups need to realize that their systems merely enable business users to do their jobs and that the business user focuses on making decisions and taking actions, not just reading reports.

On the other hand, business users need to realize that in order for IT groups to build systems that produce a solid ROI and are cost-effective, they need to take the time to design and architect solid solutions. They should not expect IT groups to work in a reactionary mode; planning and foresight are essential.

To complicate matters, there is a third party to consider - the business "power user" who is often regarded as the liaison between the business users and the IT group. The business power user is comfortable with technology, enjoys using "cool tools" and is savvy about IT processes - and all of these attributes deem him a poor representation of the average business user.

Since power users aren't ideal representatives, there is often a disconnect between what most business users want and what the power user wants. Beware: this problem isn't always evident at first. The power user is typically the first to use a new system because he has played an instrumental role in the project's design and development.

Problems generally occur after the initial pilot or system rollout when other business users start using the system. At that point, some IT systems "hit a wall." Confused users start asking a lot of questions, and those who aren't satisfied with the system voice complaints. It becomes painfully apparent that there is a discrepancy between what the business users need and what the power user articulated to the IT team. Many IT project teams are puzzled when they find themselves in this kind of situation. After all, they believed the power user to be a representative for the majority of the business users, and the system they designed and deployed met the requirements specified by that power user.

Still, the power user can be key to the success of a project for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the power user can persuade the business users to embrace and adopt the new BI tools. Because the power user is typically involved from the earliest stage of the project, he or she will likely become the most ardent advocate for the new system.

Can this relationship be saved? Of course. Many IT groups have successfully involved business users in gathering the requirements, setting goals and priorities and providing feedback on the project's design and deployment. Successful IT groups often use these basic approaches:

  1. Dedicate a member of the IT group to business systems analysis. This person works with and tries to understand business users and how their jobs are impacted by the technology they use.
  2. Get back to basics. Project management fundamentals such as documenting requirements, conducting status meetings and reviewing deliverables - with equal involvement from business users and IT - opens the door of communication and reduces unwanted surprises on both sides.
  3. Join up. Many successful projects have some form of a business users group working with the IT project team. This group could be informal or it could be a more structured steering committee, but it is always recognized and active in the project.

With a little foresight and a lot of communication between the right people, business users and IT groups can avoid a trip to the counselor's office and enjoy a compatible relationship.

Rick Sherman has more than 20 years of business intelligence and data warehousing experience, having worked on more than 50 implementations as a director/practice leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers and while managing his own firm. He is the founder of Athena IT Solutions, a Boston-based consulting firm that provides data warehouse and business intelligence consulting, training and vendor services. Sherman is a published author of over 50 articles, an industry speaker, a DM Review World Class Solution Awards judge, a data management expert at and has been quoted in CFO and Business Week. Sherman can be found blogging on performance management, data warehouse and business intelligence topics at The Data Doghouse.You can reach him at or (617) 835-0546.

In addition to teaching at industry conferences, Sherman offers on-site data warehouse/business intelligence training, which can be customized and teaches public courses in the Boston area. He also teaches data warehousing at Northeastern University 's graduate school of engineering.


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