The Road To Pervasive BI

If you're not using business intelligence tools throughout your workforce, it's time to start--or get left behind in your competitors' dust
Rethinking BI

With BI becoming more affordable and in flavors to suit every budget, it would seem BI is poised to go mainstream. But are companies ready?

The final road to pervasive BI has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the way companies must rethink who benefits from BI. In defining BI requirements, the IT department will often ask users what they want or just respond to whoever shouts the loudest. The challenge here is that users rarely know what they want until they see it and may not realize the problems BI can solve. Those users who know what they want are typically power users, already well versed in BI. In extending BI to people who don't know what it is, BI experts need to flip the requirements definition process from "What do you want?" to "Here's information relevant to your job." Finding the relevance for people beyond business analysts requires a study of what decisions they make and what motivates them.

Doctors, for example, aren't typical BI users. Their primary focus is on improving patient care. Although getting the clinical diagnosis right is essential in this process, the first step is making sure patients get treated in a timely way, particularly in emergency rooms where patients with non-life-threatening illnesses will walk out when they've waited too long. Nationally, patients wait an average of 3 hours and 42 minutes to be seen. Preventing that is critical for Emergency Medical Associates, which provides emergency medical services to hospitals and other health care providers. It uses BusinessObjects XI to let doctors and hospital administrators measure patient wait times, time to discharge, and return visits to get a complete view of emergency room efficiency and quality.

"When we first show them the dashboards, there's a wow factor," says Eric Bachenheimer, director of client solutions. "We know it's successful when hospitals proactively request things, because it shows they're thinking about how to use this information."

Similarly, teachers have little time to study student data, and yet, as part of the No Child Left Behind effort, making sure every child succeeds is a federal mandate. The Miami-Dade school district is the fourth largest in the U.S., with over 340,000 students. They recently began using Cognos 8 and Microsoft Office SharePoint portal to give principals and teachers a snapshot of each student's attendance, grades, and standardized test results for three years. Schools have been able to identify students struggling in particular areas, target instruction, and intervene much earlier, says CIO Debbie Karcher. In making BI relevant to new groups of users, the business and IT have to work together. To foster this partnership, some companies use agile development techniques in which technology and business experts build applications collaboratively. Agile development is one of the reasons for 1-800 Contacts' BI success, according to Walker. "We're virtually one team," he says. "There's partnership, high trust, and it's collaborative. It's not ‘make a list, send it over.' It's very iterative. It takes a lot of time and effort, but the end product is well worth it."

BI competency centers, when staffed by both technical and business experts who provide BI services to business units, help foster these relationships. They model data, extract it from source systems, evaluate and purchase BI tools, build BI apps, and promote best practices.

It's these sorts of approaches that will put pervasive BI within reach. Companies making progress are combining rapidly maturing BI technology with a vision of how information can be used to achieve business goals, a strong dialogue between the business and IT, and a culture for acting on insights gleaned. They're the ones to watch.

Cindi Howson is the founder of BIScorecard, a Web site for BI product reviews, and the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets To Making BI A Killer App.

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