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Kimball University: Overcoming Obstacles When Gathering Business Requirements

How do you cope with "abused users, overbooked users, comatose users, clueless users" and "know-it-all users" during the requirements-gathering stage of a data warehouse/BI project? Kimball group offers its advice for proactively working with (or around) the uncooperative, unavailable, uninsightful and irrepressible types who sometimes make it hard to know just what the business needs.

Overzealous User You're expecting to interview two business users, but seven people arrive in the designated conference room instead; these overzealous users are excited and want to be heard directly by the DW/BI team. It's great that the users are so engaged and enthused, but that won't last long if you try to interview seven people in a one-hour meeting. Quickly assess the homogeneity of the crowd. Are they all doing the same job and could build off of one another's ideas, or more likely, do they represent different jobs and functions? It's almost always the latter, so you should break them into smaller groups and give them separate slots on the interview schedule. This ensures adequate time is allocated to gather the details needed.

Know-It-All User Folks in this category often sit between IT and the real, ultimate business users. Know-it-all users sometimes act as gatekeepers, rationalizing that there's no need to bother the other business folks for their requirements when they already have a thorough understanding and can represent their needs. Sometimes the know-it-all does know it all, but other times, their perspective is skewed. Even if their understanding is 100 percent accurate, bypassing opportunities to bond with the rest of the business community via requirements sessions is a blunder that can be difficult to recover from. You can engage the know-it-alls and even elevate their perceived role and importance, but don't fall into the trap of over dependence. This potential political quagmire may require some finessing and feather smoothing on the part of the business sponsor.

As an aside, be aware that know-it-all users are sometimes IT wannabes. In addition to limiting access to the rest of the business community, they sometimes also want to perform IT's design duties by thoroughly specifying the data layouts for their proposed system solution. In their defense, IT wannabes have sometimes been forced into this role because IT has traditionally underperformed and under delivered.

Clueless User Do you have users that just don't get it? Do you feel it's a worthless exercise to schedule requirements interviews with them because they don't have any requirements? From our vantage point, 99.9 percent of the time, clueless users are a figment of an IT professional's imagination. Users may not be able to articulately convey precisely which data elements in which source systems interest them, but nearly all the time, they can clearly describe what they do, why they do it and what they want to be doing in the future. It's then IT's job to translate this information into data and functional specifications for the DW/BI system. Asking the right questions is critical to obtaining relevant, useful guidance.

Nonexistent User The final obstacle is typically fatal to a data warehouse initiative. This condition results when members of the IT organization say they know what the business users need - "in fact, we know it better than they do." These IT organizations attempt to model their data warehouse based on source-data layouts exclusively, and then don't understand why business users aren't clamoring to use their deliverables. The good news is that this obstacle is totally within the ability of the IT organization to overcome by losing the attitude and interviewing the real users.

There you have seven common challenges you may encounter during your requirements-gathering initiatives. Hopefully our suggestions will keep these bumps in the road from becoming debilitating program/project show stoppers.

Margy Ross is president of The Kimball Group. She has focused exclusively on data warehousing and business intelligence since 1984. Margy teaches for Kimball University and co-authored The Data Warehouse Toolkit, 2nd Edition (Wiley 2004) and The Data Warehouse Lifecycle Toolkit (Wiley 1998). Write her at [email protected].