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Readers Weigh In On Biggest Obstacles To Business Success

Applications are important, but what IT really needs is more business direction.

To develop our 2009 InformationWeek Analytics/Intelligent Reader Priorities report, we asked 305 business technology professionals to select their biggest obstacles to business success from among a dozen IT maladies known to plague enterprises. The top three challenges? Adapting business processes for changing conditions; accessing relevant, timely, or reliable data; and integrating, normalizing, or cleansing data. Developing vital reports, metrics, dashboards, or alerts came in close behind.

These results tell us that, despite all the progress and sophistication of enterprise IT, many companies still struggle with the basics of information management. After all, you won't be worrying about reducing data latency and supporting faster decision-making if you're still stuck at the first-level challenge of accessing and integrating data. And customizing or optimizing business processes and applications is unlikely to be a concern for those who can't get past an inflexible corporate culture and slow-moving IT development regimes that aren't keeping pace with fast-changing business conditions.

But what really surprised us is that, when asked what would improve their productivity, respondents ranked "better guidance from business leaders" first, and "additional financial support or additional staff" dead last among 10 possible responses. That's good news in that the "IT investment" these respondents are asking for is as much about time, organization, and leadership commitments as it is about hard-cash outlays. Now, top executives will likely have their hands pretty full over the next few quarters, so it might be tougher than ever to get their attention. And we're guessing it would not be a good career move to waltz into the executive suite and declare, "You really need to be doing a better job communicating strategy, and while you're at it, how about more support for our IT initiatives?"

Of course, the usual advice to "gain high-level sponsorship" certainly applies, but we'd hit the ball right back into IT's court and challenge CIOs and tech pros to engage line-of-business leaders. Particularly in these times, it's incumbent on everyone to understand the organization's mission and proactively seek direction from business leaders, rather than waiting for orders from above.

On the business intelligence front, lots of organizations are high on BI, with 38% of those responsible for BI initiatives saying that support is unanimous from the corner office to the cubicle. Still, for 27% of respondents, funding is a sticking point. End users are eager to see more reports and gain better insight, but upper management has held back support or funding for new BI investments and initiatives. The opposite problem is seen by the 27% who agree that management sees BI as an asset, but have difficulty getting end users to utilize the reports, dashboards, and other tools they develop.

Chart: How Would You Describe Your Organization's Support For Business Intelligence Investments And Initiatives?

Bridge The Great Divide
Whether you're facing a bottom-up or top-down disconnect, no amount of technology investment will bridge this divide. If you can't sell BI to C-level executives, it's likely you're either not telling the story effectively, or you're not delivering results that are making a big difference to the business. If end users aren't buying into BI, it could be a matter of inadequate training or overly complicated technology--but first consider whether the BI team is truly tuned into end user needs.

An increasingly popular institution that can help bridge the management-to-user divide is the BI competency center (BICC), or BI center of excellence. The goal in setting up a BICC is to share proven practices and lessons learned across the organization. Ideally, BICCs are cross-disciplinary teams including both IT and business leaders, and they're most effective when sponsored by the COO, CFO, or other senior leader. CIOs can lead these groups, too, but be careful not to send the message that the BICC is primarily about technology.

C-level support will obviously help when it comes to management buy-in, but the BICC's role also is to set high-level goals and choose achievable projects that will really pay off for the business. Most importantly, BICCs bring together business leaders, architects, developers, and IT types to get buy-in on what's possible and achievable, and they monitor and fine-tune the results. If the reports or dashboards emerging from a project aren't useful or understandable to end users, for example, the BICC team should do whatever it takes to fix the problem.

In some cases, BI technology itself can be the root cause of a usability problem, so BICCs must have the clout to make tough decisions. For example, the greater good may be served by moving away from limited or antiquated tools preferred by one department in favor of a new enterprise-wide standard. "A lack of tool standards limits collaboration and portability of applications, and it also increases training and software licensing costs," says Claudia Imhoff, founder and president of BI consultancy Intelligent Solutions. "If you have the responsibility but not the authority to change anything, your BICC will be rudderless."

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Here again the situation calls for support from on high, so don't waste people's time on a BI competency center if you can't secure senior-level support. It's notable that respondents ranked BICCs toward the bottom of possible productivity boosters, but we think BI practitioners tend to overestimate the burdens of holding meetings and working in concert with others while underestimating the importance of methodical BICC collaboration and review processes.

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