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Bridging the Cohesion Gap
Business Units and IT in BI Projects

by Lyndsay Wise, President, WiseAnalyticsFriday, August 29, 2008

The nature of business intelligence deployments is changing.  The focus is shifting from traditional models of building data warehouses and data marts to building OLAP cubes and ad hoc reports towards operational deployments, with multiple users accessing BI as a part of their regular business day. The general goals are to expand BI’s use within the organization, increase the role of business units in the management of these solutions, and create environments conducive to operational BI. 

Where the waters start to get murky is when it comes to dealing with a persistent issue – business unit/IT cohesion and collaboration.  While on one hand a great deal of literature regarding the importance of IT departments and business units working together to define and develop business intelligence initiatives exists, on the other hand, there is also a constant push towards business unit control of BI projects. 

A simple example is the increasing focus on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications.  Initially, within BI the focus was on using on-demand models within organizations that did not have strong IT infrastructures.  Now larger organizations are deploying departmental solutions to avoid IT involvement or having to share information across the organization that is deemed sensitive. As a result, instead of closing the gaps between business units and IT, in some cases these gaps are actually getting larger.     

Reasons for the Gap Between Business and IT 

In general, business and IT work separately to achieve a common goal.  Business units focus on operations or generating revenue while IT focuses on supporting those very tasks through the use of technology.  Unfortunately, instead of working together, both sides have the tendency to feel that they are the more important factor within the overall equation.  Instead of understanding the collaborative nature and realizing that one can’t survive without the other, each entity tends to see themselves as the key driver of the organization’s success.

Granted, IT would have no value of its own if there were no front-end business processes that helped generate revenue.  And without computer systems to manage processes, process transactions, or help identify potential improvements, business units would be hard pressed to fulfill their roles properly or be of much value to the organization.  Additionally, each group speaks its own language and in many cases no liaison or dictionary exists to bridge the gap between these natural barriers.  These communication gaps create general barriers that make it hard for both sides to communicate effectively with each other or develop business solutions that are mutually beneficial. 

In order to begin to tear down these barriers, it becomes important for both sides to understand the other’s general perspective and focus within the organization.

Business Unit Focus

Business units evaluating BI solutions do so to address a business pain. Whether the goal is to increase sales, forecast performance, or identify gaps in particular areas of the organization’s performance, using technology is required to help analyze problems and put in place the processes needed to solve those problems.  Unfortunately, many knowledge workers see technology as a barrier to creativity and getting their jobs done.  Until recently, many applications were built to collect information and process transactions without considerations of ease of use or how to connect the differences between easy programming and the way people think and process information.  Consequently, many solutions were designed with efficiency in mind but lacked perceived user friendliness. 

The same can be said for business intelligence solutions.  Ease of use was far from developers’ minds during original design and implementation.  Their goals included creating data marts and analytical tools to help identify trends and so forth. Also, as business units requested more data, there emerged gaps between the requests that were made and the solutions that were delivered. Generally, both these factors lead to lack of ease of use and lack of access to the required data when needed.  This, in essence, is what creates a large degree of dissatisfaction with IT from the perspective of business units.

IT Considerations

IT departments are required to make sure that all systems are up and running at all times during business hours, that batch or real-time data updates and migration activities are completed on time, that corporate websites are available to customers 24/7, and that individual and departmental requests are fulfilled.  Add to this the activities involved in optimizing the current IT infrastructure, developing new applications or improving upon current ones, and providing technical support for the organization and it starts to make sense why many IT departments feel overwhelmed. 

In the context of BI these activities include maintaining developed solutions, or developing, deploying, and managing end-user applications. Either way, the involvement required is great.  Unfortunately, because requirements for IT go beyond one business unit and extend across multiple applications, the ability to understand unique business requirements and business focus may be lacking.  For IT, the importance of keeping the system up and running may involve postponing changes or improvements to end-user applications.  Unfortunately, the balance between maintaining the current environment and supporting user requests and projects may at times conflict, causing tension between to the two groups.  Also, because IT departments are focused on technology, their main focus is usually diverted away from the bottom line and the processes that directly support that. 

Bridging the Gap

Two separate worlds exist when one looks at business units and their interaction with IT departments.  Due to different focuses, outlooks, and goals, each area marches to the beatof its own drum.  Because of this, overall communication may seem cryptic at best – one side is focused on how business runs, while the other side is focused on supporting those functions.

For BI specifically, the interactions and collaboration between business and IT will be a direct reflection of how each group reacts to one another and interacts on a regular basis.  Organizations cannot expect two distinct groups of individuals with negative experiences with one another to suddenly collaborate on a BI implementation or enhancement.  The lack of cohesion and understanding may cause organizations to look at SaaS-based solutions or look at alternatives that leave IT involvement at a minimum.  And although this might be beneficial in some cases, in others however, learning how to interact and collaborate effectively may be the key to developing the types of operational business intelligence solutions that are integrated into day-to-day business processes.  

About the Author

Lyndsay Wise is an industry analyst for business intelligence. For over seven years, she has assisted clients in business systems analysis, software selection and implementation of enterprise applications. Lyndsay is a monthly columnist for DMReview and conducts research of leading technologies, products and vendors in business intelligence, marketing performance management, master data management, and unstructured data. She can be reached at lwise@wiseanalytics.com. And please visit Lyndsay's blog at myblog.wiseanalytics.com.

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