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BI Sponsorship

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BI sponsorshipThere are many routes to end up with a BI sponsorship in your lap. You could have inherited the sponsorship of a BI project from a predecessor. You could have been appointed to fill the position. You could have been “volunteered” by not necessarily well-meaning peers, or… you may have grabbed the BI sponsorship role to increase your power base. The big question is – do you really know what is expected of the position? This post examines some fundamental principles each sponsor of a BI program should be aware of.

Information management disciple

 In many tightly competing industries, information is the only differentiator over your opposition. You are now part of an elite core in the organisation that has to drive for the full-blown management of data and information as an organisational resource. Information has to be managed throughout the organisation with the same vigour and rigour as finances, products, human resources and assets.

Can you imagine the wealth of information you would have if your organisation’s information was managed as well as its finances or its human resources? Can you imagine how bad it would be if the company’s finances were miss-managed like its information is currently?

You have to have a thorough understanding of the extent to which information must be managed, as well as the frameworks, approaches and technologies used to do this.

Play the party politics

 One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the business intelligence field is politics. Intra-company politics and inter-departmental politics. As a BI project sponsor, you are first and foremost a politician. But as many politicians have had to learn – your own success is directly linked to the party’s success. You have to drive for the party’s goals and agendas, even if you don’t always agree 100% with them.

The most valuable and profitable strategic business initiatives require data integrated across diverse business functions – they require a breakdown of the departmental information silos. The most effective data warehouse programs might start small, but they all become increasingly cross-functional and enterprise-wide over time. Organisations that manage customer relationships from within a single channel cannot deliver the consistent experience expected by customers today.

Whether you like it or not, you are now playing a leading role in the “one integrated enterprise data warehouse” party. If you want success – and thereafter comes recognition – you need to work for the success of the party!

Architecture is the foundation

Like any big and extensive building, no business intelligence initiative can succeed without being based on a well thought-out and 100% applicable architecture. The trick of architecture in the BI world is that it doesn’t have to be big and bold – rather, it has to be appropriate, fit the company’s culture and be cost-effective.

BI architecture covers many areas, from infrastructure to data to applications, even methodologies and resource skills. Make sure that the plans and the blueprints are in place and in order before the building commences.

One of the key components of a BI architecture is software. So many BI projects become problematic, because they use inferior or inappropriate software products. This may be because of a too good product salesman, or because internal company politics may prohibit the selection and acquisition of the appropriate software. While a poor craftsman may blame his tools, in the BI world, tool selection and configuration is part of the architect’s responsibility. The BI sponsor must support the architect to do this properly.

The other key component is an appropriate data architecture. How data is modelled, stored and moved through the architecture is as important as the storage and flow of clean water through a hospital. Allow your architects the time and energy to analyse and design an appropriate architecture. The architects should pin down the architectural principles first and then flesh out the architecture within that framework. Only a well-thought-through and well-designed data model allows the flexibility, subsequent tuning and sharing of common data across business units, applications, and technological implementations.

In an environment where real-time BI is important for the business, the architecture needs to be as streamlined and efficient as possible. The less layers of data duplication, the faster the ETL can be processed.

As a BI sponsor, make sure that you understand what BI architecture entails and why it is so important. Ensure that you have architects that can analyse, design, select, develop and put the appropriate framework and detailed components of an architecture in place.

Get with the program

A key concept to get to grips with – especially from the viewpoint of the BI sponsor – is that the BI program is not a project. BI is not just another IT development activity. BI programs follow a very specific methodology, which has to tie in very closely with the business objectives of the entire organisation on the one hand and also with the whole architectural framework on the other. As a result, the BI competency should be staffed with a set of very specific skills managed as a portfolio of capabilities that are employed in various roles as the program progresses through various projects. Each project in turn consists of short iterations, with new data and functionality delivered every 3-4 months.

In a more agile oriented organisation, the competency has to deliver useful value to the business in much shorter sprints – typically every 2 to 4 weeks – while still performing the longer running back-end data warehouse population behind the scenes.

From each business unit’s perspective, data warehouse population and information delivery to the business may seem as independent projects, but from IT and the sponsors’ viewpoints the dependencies and interrelationships between these sub-projects have to be managed and exploited to maximise the long-term benefit and ROI that BI can deliver to the enterprise as a whole (as opposed to only the short-term benefit to the business units).

As a BI sponsor, you need to understand this approach and the underlying methodology. You need to promote it (and work with the other BI sponsors, if there are any, as a united front) to guide the program and balance its priorities in an attempt to firstly satisfy the organisation’s objectives and secondly each participating business unit’s objectives.

Quality-in, quality-out

Data quality is one of the aspects of the BI program that requires particular attention. A lot of data cleansing and scrubbing operations can be applied in the BI space (for example in the ETL processes) to address data quality problems, but at the end of the day, these only address the symptoms, and not the causes. The main causes of data quality problems are usually in the operational source systems, and that is where the data quality has to be fixed. However, this requires a culture of strategic thinking. Executives need to buy into this concept and support it full circle from the operational systems to the data warehouse and back again, so that when problem are encountered they can influence the source system owners to take responsibility for the quality of the data they provide to the BI environment.

Governance

There are many facets of data and information management that has to be promoted above the scope of control of the BI program. These governances include:

  • BI enablement of transactional source systems
  • Creation and utilisation of a single data warehouse.
  • Architectural and system components
  • Data models
  • Information flows
  • Information usage (including the controversial “license to drive” certification required before access to the data is allowed)
  • Metadata compliance from source systems through the BI process through to information exploitation and dissemination.

Whereas it is the BI architects’ responsibility to define these governances, they are usually not empowered enough to put them into practice – as many of these affect the upstream source systems and the downstream information usage. However, the sponsor should have the clout and influence to have these governances accepted, implemented and enforced throughout the organisation.

Summary

As a strategic-level information officer, the sponsor is an information custodian, a politician, a businessman, a treasurer, a quality controller and a business-IT team-player, all rolled into one, and as such, you should know your subject area very well! Just like any politician, you can be asked any question at any time about the party’s policies, and that is not the time to run off to find out how it works…

As a result, a BI sponsor should have a vision for BI, the authority to make it happen, the available budget, the accountability to the other executives, the ability to up-sell BI, and most of all, commitment to the program.

There is a saying in the BI world, that “he who owns the applications, gets the glory…” which is true. The business users, and through that, the business sponsor, that achieve the benefits of downstream information exploitation get much more glory than the architects and technicians that put the whole solution together… However, before the glory comes the commitment, responsibility, in-depth knowledge and understanding.

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