Business Intelligence Sans Perfect Data

Business intelligence (BI) is a little like starting a business or becoming a parent. You know there are big potential benefits (e.g., improved data visualization, operational efficiency and decision-making), but it’s an intimidating prospect. If you wait until you’re completely 100% ready, you’ll never take the leap.

Gartner says a whopping 87% of organizations are missing out on emerging analytics technology because they have “low BI maturity.” How do you get mature? Well, you have to start somewhere, right? It may be time to take Nike’s advice and “Just Do It.”

Start with Questions or Data. Just Start.

From a business strategy perspective, it’s never a bad idea to examine what you don’t know. BI projects often begin with someone in management saying, “If only we knew x, we could improve y.” If answering a certain set of questions will improve your processes or products, why not design your initial BI project to get the answers you need?

However, as MINDs around here like to say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” If starting with a known question seems too limiting, take a step back and start with whatever data you do have. Get a cross-functional team together and ask, “We have this one data set, what can we learn from it?” Looking to data for insights, rather than basic facts-and-figures reporting, is the first step to BI maturity.

Inventory Your Existing Data

Don’t worry about how clean it is just yet. Figure out what data you have and where it lives. Bonus points if you can map how your data sets interact with each other. Today’s BI tools are much better at pulling together disparate data sources than they used to be. As my colleague Tim Gavin said a year ago, the myth that you need to build a data warehouse before you can begin exploring business intelligence capabilities is based on outdated information. Now, thanks to cloud computing, your BI tool can create and contain your data warehouse.

Look at Microsoft’s Power BI. Not only can it link any of your Microsoft-contained data, it has built-in connections to a plethora of market-leading 3rd party solutions like SalesForce, Marketo, and Google Analytics. The data accessibility revolution is why Forbes reports soaring Cloud BI adoption rates.

Think Phased & Agile BI Implementation

How does anything mature? Infant to adult. Acorn to mighty oak. You certainly can and should think overarching strategy (platform integration, data governance, etc.) from the get-go. But you have to start small. Your first BI project should focus on just one department or task. Your BI capabilities will mature over time from one unit reporting to all units reporting. Then simple reporting sprouts into assessing KPIs. Next, you’ll be able to use data insights to drive decision-making and eventually make predictions. BI evolution moves from static reporting to dynamic futurecasting.

The process is iterative and piecemeal. You’ll be amazed at how much you learn along the way. Agile development helps you incorporate those discoveries. You’ll uncover new requirements and need to adjust data models. As you find new data sources, your tech partner can connect them in ways that make sense for long-term growth.

Focus on Access & Usability for Adoption

As with any new-to-you tech tool, adoption is always the central struggle. Gartner has been tracking end-user BI adoption (or lack thereof) for a long time. Of course the goal is a user-friendly interface for employees at all levels, from frontline to C-suite. That means flexible dashboards that allow people to see only what they want to see. Give users the power to create customized content.

I happen to be a big proponent of seamless look and feel. Your BI tool should fit your corporate culture and brand. It might seem trite to focus on aesthetics, but in my experience, if a user interface looks familiar and works well, employees embrace it. Work from a common data vocabulary that incorporates internal lingo.

Now, ideally, through the design and development process, you’ve been able to validate your data prior to rollout. But if that data still isn’t perfect, just make sure you’ve set appropriate end-user expectations. Ask people to speak up when they see data points that don’t seem right. As you encourage adoption and build your user base, you grow your feedback loop, which brings me to the business intelligence gift that keeps giving . . .

Make Data Quality a KPI Your BI Solution Tracks

Data quality is critical for everyone, but perfect data doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process – a process your BI tool can facilitate. During development, design workflows that empower your users to report data correctly and confidently. Then, set up your BI solution to measure and track the aspects of data quality most important to you: accuracy, timeliness, consistency, conformity, completeness.

The challenge is to shift your thinking from data quality as a BI implementation roadblock to a desired outcome your new BI solution makes attainable. Sometimes, as an emerging technology evolves, what was once the cart becomes the powerful workhorse. It’s a welcome reversal. Who couldn’t use some help getting their data house in order?

About Fadi

Fadi Zureick was a tactile kid growing up in Columbia, MD. Legos and K’Nex were the only toys for him. Between his fascination with how different objects interact and both his parents being engineers, Fadi had no choice but to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland. “I love starting from scratch and building something. It’s super gratifying to see what develops over time.”

The transition from mechanical engineering to data analytics platform development came when Fadi was working in the solar energy industry. He was drawn to BI’s capacity for creativity, seeing the whole picture and finding ways to maximize operational efficiency. “A fresh pair of eyes is the most valuable asset I can bring to a client, helping them find answers to questions they haven’t even thought of yet.”

When he’s not making the data tell a story, Fadi is a bit of a Renaissance man, equally comfortable playing soccer and the piano. But when he really wants to kick back, he watches sports, ALL the sports – baseball, basketball, soccer, football. . . Maybe don’t ask him about his fantasy football team this year though. It’s a bit of a sore subject.