Kimball University: Educate Management to Sustain Data Warehouse/BI Success

Data warehousing and business intelligence success cannot be taken for granted. You must create an ongoing education and communication program to maintain your success and extend it across the organization.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 27, 2007

8 Min Read

Most large organizations have fairly mature data warehouse/business intelligence (DW/BI) systems in place, and many of these have met with some measure of success. Unfortunately, in this “what have you done for me lately” world, success is not a single event you can gloat about as you kick back with your feet on the desk. Continued success is a constant process of building and maintaining a solid understanding of the value and purpose of the DW/BI system across the organization. We call this education, but many of the techniques involve marketing and organizational strategies. Call it what you will, you must actively and constantly promote the DW/BI system.

First, you need to know who your stakeholders are and make sure you have standard communications tools in place, like status notes, newsletters and quantitative usage reports. There are also a few qualitative and organizational tools you can use to educate management about the value and purpose of the DW/BI system.

Gathering Evidence

While usage statistics are interesting, they show only activity, not business value. Simple query counts tell you nothing about the content or business impact of those queries. Unfortunately, there’s no automated way of capturing the value of each analysis from the DW/BI system. You still have to get this information the old-fashioned way, by talking to people. Someone on the DW/BI system team has to go out into the user community on a regular basis and ask people to describe what they are doing, assess the business impact it has had and document it.

Most of the time, the impact of any given analysis isn’t all that stunning. People do useful things that make a big difference in their work, but it’s not a multi-million dollar hit. Every so often, you will find an analysis or operational-BI application that has had a significant impact. The analyst may have identified a pattern of calls in the customer care data that led to a simple change in the documentation and reduced the call volume by 13 percent (at $6 per call, that’s over $140,000 per year for a company that takes 500 calls per day). Or they may have analyzed the donor database in a small non-profit organization and identified donors who had dropped out. This led to a special program to reconnect with these people that yielded a 63-percent response rate and close to $200,000. The operational-BI application may offer ring tone recommendations on a Website based on customer purchase history. Each ring tone may fetch only a $1, but a 30-percent increase in ring tone downloads could add up to real money. You get the idea.

Educating the Business: The User Forum

Finding high-impact examples requires a bit of work. One effective technique Kimball Group has used to identify and leverage qualitative examples of value is called a user forum. The user forum is a DW/BI event designed for the business community. Your main business sponsor should kick off this 90-minute meeting with a short speech about how important the DW/BI system is to the organization’s success. The first agenda item is a brief presentation from the team about the recent accomplishments, current state and short-term plans of the DW/BI system. The bulk of the meeting is dedicated to two presentations from business analysts who used the BI system to generate significant value for the organization. They talk about what they did, how they did it, and what kind of impact it had.

Senior managers like these events because they see the impact. Often the head of one department will see what another department has done and realize his group is missing an opportunity. Middle management and analysts like the presentations because they include enough detail so people can see exactly how the analysis was accomplished. They learn new techniques and approaches to the analytical process. The three examples of business value described abouve would be great feature presentations at a user forum.

A good meeting doesn't happen by accident. Carefully plan the meeting over six months. Find good presentation candidates with high business value by canvassing users on a regular basis. Once you find a good example, work with the user to create a clear, compelling presentation with lots of good screen captures and a summary page that shows the dollar impact of the analysis. Rehearse the presentation with them, especially if they are not experienced presenters. This helps you, and them, get the timing down so your audience doesn't miss the punch line because the meeting went too long. Email a reminder a day or two ahead of time, and call everyone you'd like to be there to make sure they are going to make it to the meeting. If key folks, like the CEO or VP of Marketing, can’t make it, consider rescheduling rather than have them miss out. If they are already on your side, it's good to have the show of support (see related article, "Habits of Effective Sponsors"); if they are not converts yet, they could learn something by being at the meeting.

Schedule User Forum meetings on a regular basis: about every six months or so. Don’t be too proud to employ blatant marketing techniques to promote the meeting. The basics almost go without saying: food and drink are a must. (We found trays of fresh donuts to be a big hit.) Consider offering marketing swag as prizes. Since most BI teams are friendly with the marketing group, see if they’ll let you raid their goodies closet.

It's a great idea to keep the presentations on file. After a year or two, you will have a library of powerful business-value examples. Put a link to them on your BI portal. Print them out and make a welcome packet you can present to every new executive.

Educating Senior Staff

Your top educational priority in the long term should be to continuously and consistently inform senior management about what the DW/BI system is, why it’s important, how it should be used and what it takes to make it happen (see related article on "Data Warehouse Check Ups"). The user forum helps achieve this objective, but the greater your access to senior management, the easier this education process will be.

Ideally, the head of the DW/BI system is part of senior staff and participates in their planning meetings. If not, try to get a regular slot on their meeting schedule to present success stories and plans and to hear about potential changes in business priorities.

Often, senior management will want to explore an idea to see if it's viable before launching any major new initiatives. Having a direct line to the DW/BI team can help senior management quickly triage ideas that should be abandoned and those that should be developed further. Once an idea begins to gain traction, the DW/BI team should make sure its development is accompanied by appropriate measurement and analytical systems. All too often, we’ve seen new initiatives taken on by senior management with no means to measure impact or value. If the data is not collected, you can’t analyze it.

Bottom line: however you make it happen, you need to make sure someone on the BI team is involved with senior management and understands where the business is headed so you can be prepared to support it.

Working with Steering Committees

If it’s not politically possible for the BI team lead to be part of senior staff, another way to get the information you need is to establish an ongoing steering committee for the DW/BI system made up of senior-level business representatives (see. If you don’t have a steering committee, try to recruit people who you know will be able to work together, give you the information you need and wield some influence in the organization. You might call this group the Business Intelligence Directorate (BID), or some other important-sounding name with a nice acronym. It may seem trivial, but naming is a big part of the marketing process.

You may also have a different kind of business-user steering committee made up of analysts and power users who help prioritize lower-level tasks and identify technical opportunities for the BI system. You might call this the BI Technical Experts (BITE) group.


You may feel like since you've done a good job, you shouldn't have to continually market the DW/BI system, or educate the business community. Unfortunately, that's not the case. You need to continually gather concrete evidence of your success and use that to educate senior management. You also need to be informed of and have some influence over the decision-making process at the senior staff level, either through direct participation or via a steering committee. This may sound like a burden, but one positive result is that as senior management understands the business value of the DW/BI system, they no longer question your budget.

Warren Thornthwaite is a member of the Kimball Group , a Kimball University instructor and is coauthor of The Microsoft Data Warehouse Toolkit (Wiley, 2006) and The Data Warehouse Lifecycle Toolkit (Wiley, 1998). Write to him at [email protected].

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