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BI Projects or BICC : Building the Dream Team

Introduction

A Business Intelligence initiative may fail for many reasons: wrong technology, lack of sponsorship, poor data quality but one of the main reasons remains an incorrect project team. Too often the technology is seen as the unique challenge of the project and the human resources side is neglected while this is at least as important as the technical part.
 
One of the main objectives of a BI project is to support strategic decisions with facts to ensure that the organization's goals are achieved. That is why a BI project requires a continuous and in-depth involvement of the business as well as the deep knowledge of the technology used to implement it. It thus is clear that the ideal team must be composed of resources coming from both the business and the technical side, working together closely. This makes the setup of the project team a complex process in which one needs to assure that a large number of varying skills will be represented. All of this is even more true when the team gets a more definite & formal status in the organization through the form of a BICC ( Business Intelligence Competence Center ).
 
Ideally the team should be composed of people with a sufficient level of expertise in their area of competence to implement the project but to ensure its success they will need other "soft” skills to be able to work together as a team as well as with the other parts of the organization. In this Insight we discuss the ideal combination of hard & soft skills required to make BI a success !
 

Obvious "hard” skills are not enough

As for any project, technical and business experts will be involved in order to implement in the best way possible. But before that it is important to check that they have a sufficient understanding of what is the Business Intelligence.
 

Basic BI Concepts and Techniques

The awareness of the team about basic BI concepts is crucial for the success of the project. As all the team members will come from various entities within the company -or even sometimes from external companies- they might all have a different background and their BI experience might be very limited. So it is important to make sure that they are all aware of the specificities of a BI project in their area of competence (business and/or IT).
 
For example; a good transactional database administrator is not automatically a good Data warehouse database administrator. Even if he has an understanding of the techniques and features of the database, he needs to be trained on the conceptual differences between a transactional system and a Data warehouse.
 
In a similar way, on the business side, the business analyst who is used to producing excel reports needs to understand the benefits he can gain from reporting out of a Business Intelligence environment.
 
Unless they have previous BI experiences, most of the resources probably do not have that knowledge and some education (through formal training or workshops) needs to be foreseen to fill those gaps. This preparation should not be seen as a waste of time but as an investment made to avoid issues in the future and to better define requirements. It is very important that both technical and business resources are involved in this conceptual training on BI concepts. Too often the business is neglected in this process, which can have a negative impact on both communication and the project itself.
 

The experts

Of course, the team will benefit from expertise in the technology used and in the area of business covered by the project. "Experts” will have proven skills and expertise in their area of competence.
 
The team should have sufficient level of knowledge in technical areas like BI Tools and Technologies, Data Quality and Data Stewardship, Data Integration (ETL), Data Architecture, Data Modeling, Masterdata and Metadata Management.
 
On the business side, and depending on the scope of the project, the team members should be experienced analysts who are used to manipulate the data of the organization and who understand the business processes quite well.
 
The project manager will ensure that the resources complement each other, that timing and budgets are respected and that all the areas of the project are covered with sufficient knowledge and expertise.
 
But if relying on initial external experts in the project is a "must have”, this is not enough to have BI project success. The best experts can be put together in a team; the project will fail if they do not know how to work together or how to interact and communicate with people outside of the project. While this is true for any kind of project, it is even more important for a BI Project where people from completely different backgrounds will have to extensively work and interact together. This might seems obvious but it remains one of the main reasons why BI initiatives are indeed failing. Business & IT and internal and external resources working together as a team and communicating on the same level of understanding.
 
This is why Business Intelligence resources need also a whole set of "soft” skills to ensure success. Regardless if they come from the business or the technical side of the organization all the team members must have those skills to be able to use their hard skills in the best way possible for the project.Necessary "soft” skills
 
"Soft” skills are by definition not the primary strength of a resource but they play an important role in the final success of a BI project. They are by nature much more difficult to evaluate. In a long term perspective they might even be more important than the "hard” skills, which can always be learnt through training and coaching. It is easier to teach resources how to use a new technology or business norm than to teach him how to communicate and work in a team.
 

Written and Oral Communication Skills

Communication skills are usually the most underestimated of the soft skills a resource needs to have to be a good BI team member. Of course depending on his role and on the size of the project a resource will use different channels of communication but it is certain that all the team members will have to communicate either internally or with other parties.
Internal Communication
To "glue” the team together it is very important that communication within the team is as efficient as possible. All the team members should be able to explain their needs and constraints and to share their concerns and challenges with the rest of the group. That's why they must have good writing and oral skills to express their ideas; they must also be able to adapt their communication to the audience to deliver the correct message. For example, a technical expert should be able to explain his constraints to a business analyst without drowning him under technical terms and acronyms.
 
They also need to have good listening skills and show empathy and respect towards the others team members. For example; a business analyst should accept constructive critics and remarks coming from the IT resources, accept technical limitations and should integrate them in his analysis.
 
Building and maintaining those bridges between business and IT team members is crucial. There is nothing worst for a BI project then to have the "right” business and technical resources, not communicating or even worse not understanding each other.
Communication with the rest of the organization
The capacity of the team to communicate with the rest of the organization is also very important. The best technical BI implementation won't be successful if it doesn't match the users expectations and if the users don't "buy it”. So, on top of good internal communications skills the resources will also need to have specific skills to collect the correct information from the user community and to deliver the correct support and training to them. This is very important during the requirements gathering phase, to support the change management process and to deploy the solution to the users.
 
1. Requirements Gathering: Listen and Explain
To ensure that the project will fulfill the business expectation it is very important to collect precise and realistic requirements. The team should then be able to:
  • Listen and process the requirements to identify which business improvements can be supported with data analysis and which ones cannot. They must be able to translate those requirements and to scope them in a realistic way.
  • Explain and guide the business on what are reasonable expectations for the project. They must ensure that the expectations are realistic and that the users understand what they will get. This is really important to avoid issues in the "acceptance” of the project, when it is finally deployed.
2. Change management: Explain, Explain and Explain
For anyone who worked on a BI project, it is pretty obvious that the project will reveal issues in current reporting, data, systems and/or processes. Those issues are always very political and should be manipulated with caution. To have team members capable of navigating and communicating in such complex situations will help to avoid or to stop possible conflicts before they impact the project.

The team might also need to support and/or coordinate the changes to current processes to address the issues and this will require a lot of explanation to convince people to accept & support the required "change”. For example; it is not always easy to explain to a group or person that by keying in data in a different way they will be able to do a lot more advanced analysis on them. Actually, the people keying in the data, might not care at all and processes will need to be put in place to manage changes in process and mentality.

That is why it is important that some of the team members are able to communicate in complex environments, both with C-level and administrative staff, and are able to deal with people sensibility. Emotional intelligence will be a huge asset. This is applicable at all level and all areas of the team as communication will happened at all levels: Project manager with the sponsors, business analyst with the business users, IT experts with the IT Leaders and staff, …

3. Deployment: Train and Explain
To ensure the "buy in” of the project by the user community it is very important to train the correct audience and to explain exactly what they can expect from the newly deployed application. The team members must then be able to:
  • Explain at all levels of the organization what the benefits and advantages are of the new solution. They will promote the usage of the BI applications within the organization so they need sufficient training skills to be able to face users who might be very reluctant to use it.
  • Train any type of audience. The team should have sufficient skills to adapt the training and the language used to the audience. The expectations of the executives won't be the same as the ones of the analysts or of the executives' assistants.
All those communication skills are very important to ensure the good execution of a project. They are even more important in an environment where a BI solution is introduced for the first time.
 

Vision: Helicopter view on the project

One of the main purposes of any BI project is to integrate technical and/or business information silos into one single view of the information. In order to achieve that and to not reproduce those silos in the data warehouse it is important that the team members are able to share the vision of the project to have a helicopter view on the company information landscape.
 
For the business team members, it will mean to have the complete view and understanding of the line of business in which the company operates and of its processes in order to understand the global goals and strategy of the organization. For the technical team members, it will mean to have the complete view on the technical landscape –"as is” and "to be”- in order to know which systems own which data and how they interact, exchange and synchronize data. In both cases, project resources need to be able to get the "complete” view, often beyond the boundaries of the project and its objectives.
 
They do not have to know all the details but they must be able to "get the big picture” in order to assess possible impact and opportunities. They must be able to always keep in mind the project objectives and vision to stay focused on them. With this helicopter view and by thinking "one step further” they will be able to guarantee project success.
 

Flexible and Pragmatic

BI projects are by nature iterative projects. Not all the requirements can be collected at once (even if this still should be the ambition before project kick-off) and during all the phases of the project new ideas or needs will be identified. It is also important that the team keeps in mind that the BI project must support the decision making processes of the organization so if the organization or its objectives change the project will have to be adapted as well. This is often the key challenge in managing time, scope & budget of BI initiatives. It is the responsibility of the team members to detect and evaluate those possible changes but primarily they must be flexible and they must accept that "things can change”.
 
Using their communication skills they will collect and challenge those new ideas in order to get the best out of them. They must also challenge the work done so far and accept the idea that the design or the process used might need to be reviewed or improved. Of course, flexibility does not mean complete freedom. All the changes must be approved and implemented in a controlled way to ensure the stability, timing and quality of the results of the project.
 
It is also important to have pragmatic team members. The ideal solution is not always the best solution so they must be able to come up with simple and efficient solutions based on their past experience. To have an ETL processes genius in the team becomes a weakness for the project if he is developing solution that no one else can understand.
 
Pragmatism and flexibility thus are mandatory to keep the project in line with the business needs and goals and to be able to have an acceptable time of reaction when changes need to be applied.
 

Team player

Finally, it is very important that all the team members feel that they belong to a team and act as a team member. Communication within the team is very important but the attitude of the members towards the team is also an important success factor. A BI project is a "team project” so all the members of that team should accept to share methods and standards and not to follow their own rules.

This is even more important since the number of members of the team is usually very limited comparing to the number of roles to play; so except in the case of very large projects, they must accept to work on several domain and functional areas and to play several roles during the project lifecycle.

Finally this implies that they must also accept to share the ownership of the project with the rest of the team. No process or functional areas should belong to a specific person. Of course, there will be a reference person for each of them but they must accept that other people will work on the same topics with their support.
 

Conclusion

Building a BI team, either as a project team or as a virtual or formal BICC (Business Intelligence Competence Center), is not an easy exercise and should not be limited to a quest for the best experts. Of course, the "ideal” team member is "rare” so all the resources will have strengths and weakness but it will be up to the team manager to find the right balance depending on the size of the project and on the context.
 
In any case, none of the - especially "soft”- skills described above must be neglected to not jeopardize the chances of success of the project.