Business Intelligence and Analytics- See Beyond the Tools: Lessons Learned from a Home Improvement Store

As I was preparing for an upcoming Business Intelligence & Analytics (BI&A) webinar, “Unlock New Possibilities from Your Data,” I was asked which products and tools would be featured. I was met with some confused looks when I replied that I wasn’t focusing on any specific products and tools.

“How can you deliver a webinar on BI&A without focusing on tools? They are critical to any good BI solution.” My (many) experiences at the home improvement store offer a good analogy for my response.

Buyer’s Remorse and the Ambitious Do-it-Yourselfer

The flooring section of the home improvement store never ceases to impress me with its extensive variety of ceramic tiles, marble and all of the tools and components needed for installation. The lumber section is chock full of hardwoods, textures, trim and all types of materials. And the tools section is just plain exciting, with power tools, instructions and videos for the do-it-yourselfer to handle almost any type of home improvement task imaginable.

I often spend too much time checking out the latest gadgets and inevitably walk out with much more than I planned. Then I get home, and I’m left wondering what in the world I will make with that new power tool, and then grow frustrated that I can’t get the same polished, sleek results that looked so easy in the demonstration.   

My ultimate objective in going to the home improvement store is to create a warm and inviting environment for my home. That’s the “solution,” or the result, that I want. All of the tools, components and raw materials play a part of making that happen, but only a part. I also need a vision of what that end result should look like, how I want it designed, and how I will use it.

Purchasing those tools or materials without knowing exactly what I want the end result to be – and without the skills to use them effectively – would leave me unsatisfied with my purchase. It’s naïve of me to expect the same high-quality results I saw in the store without the right level of detailed preparation, training and expertise.

Why You Need to Plan Before You Buy

My home improvement experiences are similar to the challenges with BI&A solutions. So often when discussing BI&A with a customer, the discussion turns to a specific product and its features and functionality. This is usually followed by some talk about how “sexy” the product is, how easy it is to use, how well it integrates with a particular data source, and a host of other criteria. All of this is critical information and should be carefully considered before making a significant investment. But we frequently determine that the customer lacks a clear vision for BI&A. They cannot agree on the business analytics or other instrumentation needed to run the business.

Business stakeholders may like the concept of predictive and prescriptive analytics and better shaping of business outcomes, but they are not quite sure what questions to ask, or where to focus their efforts. Everyone agrees that dashboards and KPIs are critical to the success of the implementation, but many are hard-pressed to identify the top three analytics that drive the business, ones that change with sufficient frequency to make them impactful, and which are actionable for the business.

The ability to produce high-impact visualizations is no doubt exciting, as is the potential to mash up data from different data sources to gather new insights, and sift through inordinate amounts of data to find patterns. But the specific use cases for such capabilities, and examples of where and how this would be useful within the organization, are still vague and not well defined. And Big Data is usually a topic of conversation and keen interest, albeit with little consensus on how to use it to support the business.

This scenario is not as unusual as you might think. Many organizations are at this stage as they embark or even continue on their journey into BI&A. Without a well-defined vision and a plan that defines use cases, requirements and architecture in a reasonable amount of detail, the selection of a tool will yield lackluster results at best. And more often than not in these situations, any tool will fail to meet expectations.

A Poorly Planned BI&A Investment can Lead to:

  • Incorrectly selecting a product vendor, purchasing a product that doesn’t meet all of the organization’s needs, or purchasing unnecessary features.
  • Over- or under-licensing of the product based on actual user personas and needs.
  • Cobbling together a solution as the vision unfolds, rather than implementing a unified solution by design.
  • Increasing the complexity of the environment in terms of usability, support and training through improper tool selection.

Four Recommendations for Avoiding BI&A Buyer’s Remorse

1) Look beyond what’s shiny – As compelling and sexy as some of today’s new BI&A tools are, don’t start your journey with a discussion of specific features and functions. Instead, start by fully developing a high-level vision of your ideal end state, including:

  • Who will use it
  • How will they use it
  • Where they will use it AND from what devices
  • What they should see
  • How they will interact with it and how frequently
  • Specific use cases, metrics, KPIs and the data that is most relevant for them  

2) Make it timely and actionable – Make sure that whatever you define within your use cases, metrics and KPIs is both timely and actionable. If it fails to meet either of these criteria, it should be reconsidered for inclusion.

 3) Don’t just look back – When defining the vision for BI&A, consider what drives the business and what type of “business instrumentation” is needed for near-real time monitoring and course correction, rather than just looking at rear-view mirror reporting. This might include:

  • The top three to five analytics by functional area and how users interact with them
  • Questions about the business that keep you up at night and what you can do about it
  • What competitors or others in your industry look at when monitoring their businesses and what can you learn from them.

4) Don’t try to do it alone – Seek advice and counsel in laying out your plan and architecture, look at what others are doing, and leverage best practices where possible. It’s great to start with a blank sheet of paper and design from the ground up, but you’ll see a faster return on your investment and a more rapid time to value by starting from an existing framework, tuning it to fit your business, and then adding that  “special sauce” that makes your organization unique. You will be much more satisfied with the end results, and you will have a solution, rather than just a high-end set of tools.

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