What is a BI Strategy?

I recently attended a TDWI meeting and there was a nice presentation that made me think about much of the work I have done over the past 20 years, and it wasn’t pretty. As I look back and reflect, I am disappointed to admit that too much of what I have done, is to simply replace what was already there, with very incremental benefit to the customer. In some cases it was about automating a manual process, in other cases it was about consolidating onto a single platform, or providing new capabilities like mobile or ad hoc access or just getting more reports into the hands of more people. Don’t get me wrong – there is value in doing these things, but it just isn’t what I hope to accomplish, and it isn’t changing much for our customers. Truth be told, every time I start a new engagement, I want to hit not only a home run, but a grand slam.

I am convinced that just about every customer and potential customer of ours either has, or can get the data they need to have a powerful impact on their business. What’s missing? Among other things, incentives. Most people are pretty busy doing things every day, in some cases too busy to question whether the things they are doing are the best things they could be doing. Maybe some don’t have the freedom to do their work differently, or the capabilities or skills they need, or the ability to develop the big idea they need. Maybe there just isn’t a workable plan to make it happen. All of these challenges relate directly back to strategy. Without leadership and a strategy that depends upon insights and information for success, most data warehouses and business intelligence implementations are going to accomplish nothing more than automating the tasks of gathering, organizing, securing and distributing information.

About 15 years ago, Billy Beane revolutionized the game of professional baseball, while helping his team, the Oakland Athletics achieve remarkable success with a small budget. The objective is the same for everyone: to win games, by scoring more runs than the other team. The challenge for the Athletics was to do this with a lot less money than other teams, most notably the Yankees. As General Manager, Beane implemented a strategy to compete differently, using data, information and statistics to develop insights that changed decision-making in his organization, and changed the way the Athletics pursued victories. I won’t go into details here, there are books and movies that can do that. What I will say is the information this strategy rested on was always there, from the beginning. Even the insights had existed in plain sight for as much as two decades. What took them so long?

I’d love to have an easy answer to that question, but it’s complicated. And that is just like the organizations where we all work and the markets where we operate. Just as it was in baseball, the people throughout our companies have been influenced by, and are invested in the way things have been done in the past. That is rarely a formula for transformation and new ideas and approaches. The conventional thinking in baseball was based on triple-crown sluggers who drove in runs, while the new approach was to simply not get out. Both strategies work, but following one comes at a higher cost. What is the conventional thinking in our businesses? What is the opportunity? The tools and capabilities that exist today are considerably more powerful, effective and accessible than ever before. What should we do with them?

Some companies have sought to master the customer, to understand what drives them to buy, what products they like, or when they might leave. Still others seek to understand who their best customers are, who are their worst, and how to keep one, and lose the other. Many have looked at their own operations in order to increase efficiency and lower costs, and there are a wide variety of approaches to do that. Too many however, have yet to do any of these things, and are still producing P&L statements, sales reports and expense reports that provide a summary of results, with no ability to provide any insight into why or how those results came to be, or how they might be changed. That is not because the information isn’t there, or because we do not have the capability to figure it out. It is because we are not asking the right questions, we are mis
sing an opportunity and we are not defining business intelligence as a tool that serves our business strategy. What do you want to do with your data? What would it take to make a significant impact on your company? I think many might be surprised to find out that you can.