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As data warehouse designers, you know how important a business executive sponsor is to your initiative. After focusing on data warehousing for the past two decades, I’m convinced that strong business sponsorship is the leading make-or-break indicator of data warehouse success. Having the so-called right sponsor can overcome a multitude of shortcomings, such as difficulties obtaining funding or resources, elsewhere in the project. On the other hand, sponsor turnover is one of the most common causes of data warehouse stagnation. Unsponsored data warehouses simply don’t survive.

In this column, I’ll explore the characteristics that distinguish highly effective data warehouse sponsors. Sponsors who take their responsibilities seriously seem to naturally crave guidance about doing their job well. They’re just as interested in data warehouse success as you are. Of course, the more effective the business sponsor is, the more fun you’ll have associating with the data warehouse initiative. Remember that you’re both on the same team. So after reading this column, route it to your existing or potential sponsors, as this one’s for them.

Setting Up for Success

You’ve volunteered (or perhaps been mildly coerced) to serve as the business sponsor for the data warehouse. You’ve been successful in most previous ventures, but this is new and different. Then again, it can’t be that difficult, can it?

No: It’s not difficult, if you’re committed. After working with hundreds of data warehouse sponsors, the same patterns of behavior occur repeatedly. I encourage you to learn from others’ mistakes and keep these habits in mind as you undertake your new responsibilities.

Believe in the Vision

As a data warehouse sponsor, it’s important that you visualize and verbalize the potential effects of improved information on the organization’s key initiatives. If you have the authority, but don’t truly believe, then you should step aside as the business sponsor because you’ll inevitably struggle to be effective. Data warehouse business sponsors need to be passionate about the cause and convey their vision to the organization.

If this doesn’t sound like you, then you and the data warehouse team need to find an alternate sponsor before plowing full steam ahead; otherwise, you’ll be doing a disservice to yourself, the warehouse team, and the entire organization.

Resist the Path of Least Resistance

A common approach to managing the enterprise’s data assets is avoidance. Data is managed departmentally rather than across the organization. Each department or organizational function builds its own private data repository, but there’s no overall enterprise view. It’s initially appealing because every department gets exactly what it wants without contending with organizational consensus. Numerous existing data warehouses have been constructed on this basis.

However, because each department uses slightly different definitions and interpretations, no one’s data ties to anyone else’s, and the result is anarchy. You lose the ability to look across the enterprise, missing opportunities for cross-functional sharing. Likewise, this mayhem produces significant organizational waste. Partially redundant databases translate into partially redundant data development, administration, and storage expenses. Even more wasteful are the resources devoted to understanding and reconciling this inconsistently defined data.

Of course, you can bring order to the chaos, but you need the political clout, financial means, and inclination to challenge the status quo. Rather than letting everyone build independent, department-centric databases or dashboards, corporate information assets need to be proactively managed. Many CIOs consider it their fiduciary responsibility. As the business sponsor, you’ll need to work closely with the CIO to encourage key stakeholders to watch out for the good of the greater whole. The enterprise will need to commit to a common foundation, relying on shared reference information (also known as “dimensions” to our regular readers) as the foundation for integration. No one said it would be a cakewalk.

Establishing order begins with a simple underlying premise: Key performance metrics are reused repeatedly across the organization. In a health insurance company, processing claims is a primary business activity, although one department may analyze the insured party’s characteristics while another wants to study the health care professional involved. Despite distinct departmental focuses, claims data is a common link.

Rally Those Around You

Data warehouse business sponsors need to influence others up, down, and across the organization. You’re the internal data warehouse booster. Rallying the troops typically comes naturally to sponsors. You need to create enthusiasm within your organization, without overpromising or setting expectations that the data warehouse team can never fulfill. Don’t be surprised if the project manager asks you to send out a friendly reminder conveying the importance of this initiative to key business representatives, encouraging their participation. Predictably, business folks more actively engage in data warehouse requirements or review meetings when it’s been strongly suggested by their boss’s boss. In the long run, getting business representatives personally involved during the design and development phases is crucial to their acceptance of the ultimate deliverable.

Rallying your peers is equally important, especially if you understand the ultimate costs associated with the “easy” route and commit to an enterprise approach. Obviously, you’ll need your peers’ backing, both financially and organizationally, to realize this vision. However, you may need to create awareness first. Perhaps your peers have already written big checks for new transaction processing systems, but don’t yet understand that these operationally oriented systems won’t address their analytic needs.

Business sponsors also need to build peer consensus on priorities. This consensus must be resilient enough that everyone involved sends consistent messages to the organization, both in words and actions. Attempting to step above the political fray doesn’t come naturally. You’ll need a keen awareness of your peers’ needs and the ability to empathize, without alienating them or being condescending. Early sponsors of the data warehouse often recruit peers to become cosponsors. You and your cosponsors must agree on and be committed to common goals. Inevitably, you will feel organizational pressure to change course.

Patience is a Virtue

Successful data warehouses are built incrementally. End users won’t get everything they want in the first phase, when establishing the core shared reference data is the priority. You need to be patient and ensure others follow suit. The data warehouse business sponsor should share the team’s desire to balance meaningfulness and manageability when considering project iterations and timeframes.

Analytic and reporting alternatives to the data warehouse probably already exist in the organization. Any incremental expenditure to enhance or expand these pre-existing point solutions should be evaluated against the overall goal. In the long run, many of these departmental solutions will be migrated or retired. Obviously, you need peer support to make this happen, especially when the near-term resolution to requests is “no” or “you’re next in line.”

Be Supportive, But Set Limits

Serving as a business sponsor for the data warehouse is not a short-term assignment, so plan to be involved for the long haul. Your visible participation helps encourage organizational acceptance and maintain momentum and enthusiasm.

Battles will erupt, usually over funding or resources. Business sponsors need to provide ongoing financial support for the foreseeable future. Data warehouses collapse without adequate funding. On the other hand, you can overspend. Although big budgets provide the team with short-term euphoria, nothing is sustainable if the costs exceed the benefits. You must expect and assure that the data warehouse team continues to deliver new incremental value to the organization in a timely and consistent manner.

Remain Focused On the Goal

Data warehouses are built to materially improve the organization’s decision-making capabilities. As the data warehouse sponsor, you should continually remind all within earshot that business acceptance is the key success metric for the initiative. Everyone involved with the program, both on the business and IT side, needs to recite this pledge daily. That’s especially true for those vulnerable to distraction by whiz-bang technology. Remember, nothing in your mission to improve the organization’s decision-making says anything about technology.

You must understand that building a data warehouse isn’t a single project, but an ongoing program. Asking when the data warehouse will be finished is akin to asking, “When will we stop developing and enhancing our operational transaction processing systems?” The data warehouse environment will advance as an organization’s core business processes, associated operational systems, and analytic processes mature.

As the business sponsor for the data warehouse, you ensure that the program is in continuous alignment with the business. As the business and its initiatives evolve, so must the vision for the data warehouse. The team can’t afford to become complacent and rest on its laurels. The sponsor should ensure the program stays on a trajectory for excellence, without dictating or expecting compliance with unrealistic timeframes. Your strategy should focus on those opportunities that translate into the biggest benefit for the overall enterprise.

It’s Not That Tough

The habits of highly effective data warehouse business sponsors don’t require a degree in rocket science. They’re common sense, largely variations on themes that let us be effective in other aspects of our professional and personal lives. So go forth and be an effective sponsor — the organization and data warehouse team are counting on you!

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