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Data Warehouse Check-Ups

Periodic check-ups will help you avoid letting business intelligence and data warehousing problems spin out of control.

It's human nature to resist visiting a doctor for periodic check-ups. Generally, we'd prefer to avoid being poked and prodded, having our vital signs taken, and then being told that we need to quit smoking, exercise more, or change our lifestyle habits in some fashion. However, most of us are mature enough to realize that these regular check-ups are critical to monitor our health against conventional and personal norms.

Similarly, it's critical to conduct regular check-ups on your data warehouse and business intelligence (DW/BI) environment. It's less invasive to just keep doing what you've grown accustomed to in your DW/BI environment, but it pays to regularly check its weight and blood pressure, as well as the pulse of the business community.

Just like the assortment of health guides available in your doctor's office, we'll describe the most common disorders encountered when performing DW/BI check-ups. For each malady, we'll then discuss the telltale symptoms to watch for, as well as prescribed treatment plans.

This column is pertinent to anyone with a maturing (dare we say "graying"?) data warehouse. Those of you just getting started should also watch for these warning signs to nip any disorder in the bud before it takes hold and spreads within your environment.

Business Sponsor Disorder

One of the most common, yet potentially fatal disorders involves the sponsorship of the DW/BI environment. A business sponsor disorder is often the contributing factor to data warehouse stagnation.

Symptoms. Organizations are most vulnerable to this disorder when the original sponsor moves on either internally or externally. Even though someone will ultimately fill the job or assume the title, the new person likely isn't as zealous for the data warehouse effort as the original sponsor. If the original sponsor left under somewhat negative circumstances, many of the assumptions concerning the data warehouse effort may be at risk, including tool selection, identity of trusted vendors, and choice of application development topics. The political winds at the moment of such a transition can be especially turbulent.

Even if the sponsor hasn't changed jobs, he or she may mentally abdicate sponsorship duties. Newly formed data warehouse teams are especially susceptible. Once the team gets approval to proceed with the DW/BI initiative, it turns its complete attention to building the new environment as promised. In the meantime, another hot issue distracts the business sponsor (who potentially suffers from attention deficit disorder).

Another warning sign is if IT is the primary sponsor of the DW/BI program, establishing priorities and driving the development plan. Finally, if you find DW/BI funding suddenly coming under intense scrutiny, you're likely suffering from sponsorship disorder.

Treatment plans. The first step to treat this disorder is to identify and recruit a business sponsor. An ideal business sponsor visualizes the potential impact of the DW/BI environment on the business, which empowers the sponsor with enthusiasm to ensure that the larger business community embraces the DW/BI deliverable. If the sponsor isn't engaged and passionate about the cause, then it's tough to convey that to the rank and file. Effective sponsors often face a compelling problem that they're trying to address. Good sponsors are able to leverage this compelling problem to provide the project with momentum by insisting the organization can't afford not to act.

We look for business sponsors who are influential within their organizations, both in terms of hierarchical and personal power. DW/BI sponsors need to be politically astute and understand the culture, players, and processes. Because neither the business nor IT communities can effectively construct the DW/BI world independently, business sponsors should be realistic and willing to partner with IT.

The most obvious way to find a business sponsor is to conduct a high-level assessment of the business requirements. Likely sponsor candidates will rise to the top of the surface as a result of this process. Another approach is to conduct a demonstration proof-of-concept, presuming viewer expectations can be realistically managed.

If no one emerges as a potential willing and able sponsor, then the project team should seriously reconsider moving ahead. You absolutely need someone high in the business to champion the cause. Otherwise, you'll suffer from chronic business sponsor disorder. The estimated lifespan of a DW/BI environment plummets without strong business sponsorship.

Your work isn't done once you've identified and recruited a single sponsor. Given the never-ending nature of the DW/BI program, sponsorship needs to be institutionalized with a steering committee or governance group of senior business and IT representatives. Clearly, you don't want to put all your sponsorship eggs in one basket.

One of our favorite tools for working with business sponsors is the prioritization quadrant, as described in "The Bottom-Up Misnomer" (Sept. 17, 2003). This technique is used in the early stages of a data warehouse to align business and IT priorities, resulting in a program roadmap for the enterprise. On an ongoing basis, perhaps every six months to a year, the DW/BI sponsorship or governance group should review progress to date and revisit the prioritization quadrant to queue up subsequent projects balancing business value and feasibility.

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