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Four Business Intelligence Resolutions for 2009

In times of recession, business intelligence is more important than ever. In the year ahead, make commitments to use BI to beat the downturn, standardize tools, train users and invest in your own career.

Cindi Howson Cindi Howson

Some scoff at them, some dread them, but I, for one, like New Year's resolutions. It has become a family ritual on New Year's Day to write new ones and assess last year's list. My personal resolutions get taped inside the pantry as a constant reminder (not to mention source of ribbing from my family); I carry my work-related resolutions inside my portfolio. In the spirit of the New Year, I'd like to propose some resolutions for your business intelligence efforts in 2009.

1. Use BI to Beat the Downturn

The global economy is struggling; layoffs are announced daily; bankruptcy threatens many. While the government shapes its economic stimulus package, here is one for your company: Use business intelligence to beat the downturn. Visionary companies continue to show us how BI has not only helped them survive but thrive in tough times. Convince your business users and BI budget holders that BI is a partial answer to improving performance amid the downturn. Here's how to make your case.

Find your LOFT (Luck, Opportunity, Frustration and Threat). In doing the research for my book, Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App, several companies described their BI success as a matter of aligning forces including luck, opportunity, frustration and threat, which I dubbed the "LOFT" effect. It might seem frustrating that some factors are beyond the control of the BI team. But when viewed proactively, LOFT can help BI become more relevant.

Threats are a constant, be they customers defaulting on their payments, the supply chain being interrupted or the business failing. By considering these threats you can focus your BI initiatives and spur action. Continental Airlines, for example, began its business intelligence initiative in the mid '90s when it was facing both another bankruptcy and a cash crisis. BI not only helped the airline meet these risks, it helped create a foundation for efficient operations and improved customer service. Today, Continental is one of the more financially stable major U.S. airlines, and it has chalked up years of high customer satisfaction. In another example, Emergency Medical Associates, which operates emergency rooms in the New York metropolitan area, used BI to improve patient care and reduce wait times even as it has faced such threats as soaring medical costs and declining Medicare payouts.

To use the LOFT effect to your advantage, first know your organization's pain points and deliver information that helps managers understand and control these conditions. For example, one business owner I recently spoke to aims to survive this crisis by reducing the aging of accounts receivable, among other strategies. Getting customers to pay within 30 days versus the 45 to 60 days currently experienced will help cash flow. A new report can help identify slow-paying customers, sorted by days outstanding. It sounds like a small thing, but often a business person doesn't know what's possible or how BI can help.

Next, to understand and take advantage of LOFT, business and BI experts need to establish a dialogue. Set a schedule for how often you will meet with your business users, whether casually for lunch or coffee or more formally by attending staff meetings.

Remember that threats and frustrations are not the only LOFT factors beyond sheer luck. You must also consider opportunities, whether to improve customer service, increase operating efficiencies or launch wildly popular new products. If today's doom-and-gloom headlines make you think that's impossible, consider some of the mega companies that are doing well despite the recession, including Walmart, McDonalds and Comcast.

Also look to some of the newer companies – such as Netflix, HomeAway and Zappos – that have made data and business intelligence cornerstones of their business models. Part of finding your company's LOFT is finding opportunities to exploit the data you have amassed. FlightStats, which mines data to determine which airlines have the best on-time performance, did just that. The company's tagline, "When the travel gets tough, the tough fly smarter," could well be paraphrased to apply to BI and business in general.

2. Develop a BI Strategy and Standardize

If you are looking to trim your BI budget, consider the number of BI tools your company owns and how much you are paying in maintenance fees to vendors that provide overlapping capabilities. Are any of those software investments shelfware and likely to remain so?

BI tool standardization among 513 companies surveyed in 2007 (2005 stat for
BI tool standardization among 513 companies surveyed in 2007 (2005 stat for "single vendor" noted in gray box).
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A reduced BI tool portfolio means internal support costs decline, software maintenance costs decrease and support for the consolidated portfolio of tools should improve. But BI standardization is not for the faint of heart. It takes an enterprise approach to business intelligence and an executive-level sponsor who is willing to say that certain BI tools will no longer be supported. In a survey I co-authored for TDWI, only 24% of companies responding in 2005 said they had standardized on a BI platform. By 2007, this number had nearly doubled to 42 percent of companies surveyed (see "BI tool standardization" graphic above). Even more significant, companies that have a predominant BI standard reported a higher success rate and lower failure rate than companies that have not standardized (see the "BI standardization and success" chart below).

BI standardization and success as reported by 513 companies surveyed in 2007.
BI standardization and success as reported by 513 companies surveyed in 2007.
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BI standardization does not mean one tool meets all users' needs. It does mean, though, that you have a predominant BI standard complemented by tools that serve a specific purpose or capability not available in the BI platform.

3. Train Your Users

If you're hoping business intelligence will help your company through this economic downturn, IT cannot remain a bottleneck to information. You have to train more users on self-service access to information and analysis.

Vendor-provided training is readily available for power users who need to become experts on BI tools. More casual users would benefit from in-house training customized to their data and analysis needs. If you have developed a sound BI strategy and optimally positioned BI tools to specific user segments, then certain user segments should not require any formal training. For such intermittent BI users, cheat sheets and quick reference cards may be the most appropriate training assistance.

Ensure that whatever training you provide is on going and collaborative. Web-based sessions in which BI users share tips and tricks are ideal. When logistics allow, host periodic "lunch and learn" sessions as well as internal user-group meetings.

4. Invest in You

Finally, with many companies downsizing, make it a priority to invest in you. Fortunately, demand for business intelligence is strong, and several analyst firms are still predicting growth in deployments in 2009. But that's not to say that BI professionals won't become casualties of the weak economy. Thus, you don't want your BI skills to be outdated or too company-specific. Now is the time to ensure that your certifications are up to date. A number of vendors offer product-specific certifications. If you are a general BI practitioner, consider TDWI's certified business intelligence professional (CBIP) training to set yourself apart.

Many companies offer training as a benefit and as part of employee development programs. Far too often, though, overworked and overscheduled professionals fail to make time for training. Resolve to make time by, for example, attending at least one conference and training course a year. If your company has reduced travel and training budgets, look for local or regional opportunities. Kimball University, DAMA, and TDWI all offer regional courses.

Don't let a reduced training budget be an excuse, either. Many vendors offer regional conferences, road shows and user-group meetings for free or nominal fees. And if you're not attending at least one Web seminar a month, you're losing out on yet another economical opportunity to hone your skills. Arguably, some Webinars are marketing tools that may lack substance. But most provide solid educational content.

Finally, given the hectic pace of business, discretionary tasks like reading often fall by the wayside. Reading is a low-cost way to invest in you. Set aside time to scan industry articles or listen to podcasts. To help you stick to this resolution, block out one lunch hour a week for reading. In addition to magazines, online articles and white papers, make a list of books you'd like to read in 2009. If you can't afford to purchase all of these books, check with local libraries, which can often get technology books through inter-library loans.

Get a Fresh Start

If you are a resolution-believer like me, you know that step one is to make your resolutions a matter of record – whether on paper or an internal Web site. Sharing resolutions with colleagues increases the chance that you will stick to them. In that spirit, I welcome you to add your own BI resolutions in the comments area below. Take stock as the months unfold, and at the end of the year, let us know how well you stuck to your resolutions.

Happy New Year!

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