Sunday, March 20, 2011

What is the balance of your personal brand in Business Intelligence?

Why a personal brand? A brand lets other people identify themselves with what we sell or service, in particular a personal brand lets other people identify who we are, what we do and more importantly get insight our track record. No matter if you are in the industry or you are consultant helping other organizations implement a BI solution, your personal brand is the enabler for your continuous growth as a professional. Business Intelligence – a 10+billion USD market – is surprisingly a small community after all. Independently of the vertical (retail, life sciences, telecommunication, etc) that your company is currently doing business at, or the technology stack that you are using, most people who enter this field will remain associated with it throughout their careers. The key questions remain, how do you build a personal brand, does it depend on you an individual, on your firm, or how well the projects that you participate in are perceived? The answer is all of the above. So, if Business Intelligence bolts some of the higher failure rates for projects, the reasons been discussed on previous (and future) blogs, how can you build your personal brand in what it looks to be a highly dangerous professional mine field?
Throughout my professional career I have been associated with many organizations. While as a person I have never significantly change when I transition organizations, I have noticed that the perception of the people in the market (especially those who have not worked with me in the past) does change, sometimes quite drastically, depending on the organization that I was joining to. This is by no means bad, but it might be a challenge that you need to understand and be ready for it. It is always easier and safer to choose to associate yourself with an organization that has already a brand built, this will certainly make things easier and you will be able to do well in projects just by calling the CIO and reminding him/her of the history of the organization. However, this easiness comes at a price, you are piggybacking on the brand of the organization that you joined, which will bring you instant “fame” at the cost of sacrificing your creativity, freedom and potentially your professional values (as you will have to follow the rules of the new organization). Compared this to a situation where you join an organization with no brand, which nobody has heard of. The potential is much more: you will need all your energy, imagination and resources to propel the organization up, you will have much more control of the situation but the effort that you will have to put in will probably be orders of magnitude higher.
While the firm’s brand will certainly define you, this blog proposes that you need to change the equation so your personal brand can influence and define the firm’s. This is easier said than done; at the end of the day no single individual is responsible for the success or failure of any initiative. Granted, you can be a big influencer (either positive or negative) but at the end of the day is team work. Your personal brand is guided and defined by your leadership style. A personal brand leadership does not need to be at CXO levels to matter, but rather is connected to everything that happens in the project: an architect providing technical leadership to a development team, an analyst providing direction to the application builder, a QA lead establishing the parameters that the application will be used to be tested. All these are examples of leadership that define and shape your personal brand.
A personal brand is like a bank account, every success increments the balance, every failure is literally paid. If this is indeed the case, what is your balance today?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The LEGO effect: Re-inventing a BI organization one brick at a time

Who does not remember the iconic LEGO toys? If you have kids (or a kids’s hearth) you probably have some of these toys lying around in the house. When I first got introduce to LEGOs I was fascinated (and somehow intimated) by the infinite possibilities of what could be built with the bricks. The bricks came in different colors, shapes, sizes and forms and yet all of them were required to build a master piece.
I consider a BI organization to be also a master piece within a company; the BI organization is directly responsible for transforming information assets into competitive advantage touching every single business process and operation, with the ability to improve performance by measuring and showcasing light into how things are done. 15 years ago there were no BI organizations as such, this function was carried by a combination of IT and business people who were beginning to explore the potential of relational models in a mainframe dominated world. Today, all Fortune 1000 companies have a group that identifies themselves as “Business Intelligence” and consulting companies have responded accordingly by aligning Information/Transformation management services in a similar fashion. However as companies grow and mature there comes a need for these companies to reinvent themselves; in particular the BI organizations play a key role before, during and after this transformation process.
Discussing this topic with industry experts who have been in the field for a while, we came to shocking yet not surprising revelation: When management is looking at how to re-invent the company they see the existing BI organization not as a uniform entity with a well defined purpose, but rather as a collection of individual bricks that have unique properties in and on themselves: Business Analyst, Data Integration, Reporting, Analytics, Corporate Performance management, Database Management, etc. When you start rationalizing a BI organization like this, it is very easy to get lost in the details. Using the LEGO analogy, when you a look at a finalized LEGO figure (e.g. a Building) you don’t see it or appreciate it from an individual brick perspective, but rather you need to look at all the bricks together to appreciate the end result.
Things get even more complex when you want to create some new shape using the existing blocks. There are different approaches one can take, you could completely disassembled the existing shape, examine each brick independently and then chose the ones you need for the new shape. The problem with this approach is that looking at each brick individually without having the vision for the new shape is not very useful. Each brick is only as good as it enables you to build the new shape you have in mind, if there is no vision, then you cannot possibly build anything other than an amorphous shape that will not survive as it has no purpose. The same is true when a company is trying to re-invent the BI organization. If management starts looking at each components of the group and deciding who they like and who they don’t like without having a firm vision for what the new organization will need to achieve, this will be a very disruptive process which at the end will provide no value to the company, or any of the individuals (bricks) involved.
In Business Intelligence, as in the LEGO world, a brick is just a brick until it is combined with other bricks to create something. It is up to management (aka the organizational architect) to define the vision of what the group needs to achieve, set the goals and strategy and have the organization aligned into that direction. The final design is beyond a simple consolidation of bricks, as it has a reason to exist that transcends the nature of each of its elements to achieve PURPOSE.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is real time, the right time?

With the advent of the smart phones, it seems that the next wave of BI will come from “mobilizing” the business applications and putting real time information at the ever reach of the executives and decision makers. However, experience dictates that having information available in real time is not always the best option. Early in my career, when we started experimenting with real time data loads, primarily to get around the limitation of fixed time load windows, I found out (the hard way) that sometimes real time data might give more trouble than benefits. I had the opportunity to witness over an upgrade from daily loads to 5 minute batches when I was working for a retailer early in my career. The new system enabled the data warehouse to be updated from all the stores 12 times an hour. From an IT perspective it was a huge success, being able to load data from more than 200 stores in less than 300 seconds from the POS to the Data Warehouse. However, our enthusiasm was short lived when we tried our business users to acknowledge the value of this data. The feedback started coming in that our users could not make any decisions as it was hard for them to tell exactly what was on the data as there were intermittent delays in some of the stores (links/servers down, etc) that prevented from them knowing exactly what they were looking at, and because the data changed every 5 minutes, it became a very troubling exercise to catch if there were any data errors (either introduced at the source or as part of the loading process). It got so bad, that our users asked us to remove the capability and give them access only to the audited data (as of close of business yesterday). For me this was a very valuable lesson that not always faster is better. Our brains are designed to process information when we understand what we are looking at; after analyzing the data you might want to run different slices of analysis which at the end of the day you want to amount to the whole pie.
Imagine that you are driving a next generation vehicle where everything is electronic and it can communicate with your Smartphone in real time. It can give information to the second on gas levels, air pressure, oil life, etc. If the car was sending information to you every 5 minutes with the different metrics speed, avg. fuel consumption, miles left to empty,etc, you would probably start ignoring the data because it becomes non-relevant after a while. However, with this comes the added risk that if you have enough fuel for 2 miles, you will probably miss this tidbit of information among all the other data elements. You would have run out of gas and not for lack of information, but rather excess of it.
Compare this situation with the concept of right time: you get only key notifications with the right amount of notice so you can act on it, for example the car will only SMS you when there are 2 gallons of fuel left, giving you enough time to locate a gas station and refuel. As we witnessed the next mobile evolution (or revolution) in BI, we need to able to separate the fads from long term trends. If you are caught on the real time frenzied, take a deep breath and ask yourself: “Is real time the right time?“

The power of organizational politics in BI

Let us face it, how many times have you read that failure rates in BI projects are sky high and that you have a better chance of getting an upgrade in your next flight than for your BI project to succeed? Reality is that in my professional career I have found this to be a true statement, albeit not for the reasons that most people think. When you think of a failed BI project, most of us conjure an image of a developer who has no clue what he/she is doing and the computer displaying the now legendary blue screen. However, I have never seen a project being shelved because of technical issues. Granted many technical implementations are done by people who have little knowledge and thus typically fail the first time; never the less it is very “easy” to recover from a bad technical implementation: with the right team the project can be turned around in mere weeks. So, if technical glitches are not the reason for permanent failure, what is to blame? You probably guessed the answer by reading the title of this blog: politics. Politics are an inherent quality of the human race and they are always present when you have more than one individual, they permeate everything we do at home, school and work and balance the nature of our interactions with our family, friends and colleagues. So, if politics are everywhere, how come they affect BI projects more than other IT initiatives?
Business Intelligence projects have the potential to significantly upset the balance of power in the organization, both from a project and outcome perspective. Many blogs and white papers have addressed how the outcome of a BI initiative affects the balance of power; this blog however will attempt to prove how the project itself can be an agent of chance, independently of the outcome. In order to understand this hypothesis we need to take a step back and understand why the organization chooses to execute a BI project. BI projects are by nature information projects, organizations realize they need to invest in BI when they are looking for a competitive advantage that is inherent to the organization itself: Business Intelligence enables a company to use its own information (wherever this might be located) as a competitive advantage. They key is not in the what (information you have), but in the how (it will be used). Here, therefore, lies the crux to the situation, it is not the destination that matters (the organization will end up having more or less the same information), but the journey (how this information will be visualized, interpreted and acted upon) which will define success. The process of establishing these new organizational processes will be critical to how the organization will evolve, and more importantly what will it become. Thus, the person that is appointed to lead the project is not only being a project lead, in fact, depending on the scope of the BI initiative, he/she is being effectively designated as the organization architect who will build the foundation layer for a new operating model.
It is not surprising then, that politics start to play well before a BI project gets underway, with every coalition of power in the organization proposing/backing their candidate(s) who will lead the initiative, in a similar fashion to political parties determining who will be the official candidate to run for an election. In addition, given the technical complexity and magnitude of the task, the organization will also likely chose a partner that will supplement/complement the internal staff. The selection of the partner is equally complex, with many variables to be considered, including the quality of the vendor, price, reputation and brand equity. However, the successful criteria for selecting the vendor will always boil down to a matter of trust; do I trust this partner to help me achieve the organizational objectives? Not different from a political candidate choosing their second in command, Barack Obama choosing Joe Biden and John McCain choosing Sarah Paling, in the USA 2008 presidential election. While all the candidates want to win the election, it is important to recognize that the foundation for change is seeded in the campaign, not in the victory. Similarly the foundation for organizational change is established by the project team, as the project executes. The success or failure will not be in the deployment to production, but on how the project team established a clear link between the people who are running the company and the new way of visualizing, interpreting and acting on the information that the project enabled. A successful BI project will empower the people to make effective decisions thus creating a new era in, you guessed right, organizational politics.