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Business acceptance is a bigger problem than BI/DW professionals want to admit. Here’s how to get on the right track.

A recent Data Warehouse Designer column, “Data Warehouse Check-Ups” (June 12, 2004), discussed the importance of regularly casting a critical eye over your data warehouse/business intelligence (DW/BI) program. Check-ups identify early warning signs and symptoms so appropriate treatment can occur before more serious consequences are encountered down the road.

One of the more troubling DW/BI maladies is the business acceptance disorder. In layperson’s terms, the business community isn’t using the DW/BI environment — it’s just not a critical component of the business decision-making process. Frankly, this is a frightening diagnosis for project teams. It’s impossible to declare DW/BI success if no one in the business has embraced the results of your hard work and best intentions.

Business acceptance shortfalls must be rectified quickly once the symptoms are recognized to get the DW/BI effort back on track. The Kimball Group has talked and written extensively in the Toolkit books about the importance of embracing business users early in a new DW/BI initiative to understand their requirements and garner their buy-in. We use a similar, but somewhat different approach for re-engaging the business community. This column describes the fundamental techniques so you can comfortably and confidently get back in sync with the business to ensure ongoing involvement and acceptance.

DW/BI Business Realignment

Viewing the DW/BI project through the business users’ eyes is an effective method to realign with the user community. In cooperation with the business sponsor, DW/BI team representatives talk with the business community about the ability of the DW/BI environment to effectively support their needs. Results of this process are then analyzed and presented back to the business with appropriate recommendations.

The most important aspect of the realignment process is meeting with the business community to solicit their feedback. We talk to them about what they do, why they do it, how they make decisions, and how they hope to make decisions in the future. Along the way, we also need to understand how the current DW/BI efforts support this process as well as any issues and concerns regarding the DW/BI environment. Like organizational therapy, we’re trying to detect the issues and opportunities.

Choose the Forum

Before meeting with the business community, determine the most appropriate forum for a productive session. There are two primary techniques for gathering feedback — interviews and facilitated sessions. For a realignment project, interviews are preferable to facilitated sessions. Because lack of business acceptance is suspected, it’s reasonable to expect some negative reactions to the existing environment. You should avoid facilitated group sessions, which may disintegrate into fingerpointing, blame-casting complaint sessions counterproductive to your mission of reinvigorating business acceptance. Besides, interviews encourage a lot of individual participation and are easier to schedule.

Surveys aren’t a reasonable tool for gathering realignment feedback. Business users are unlikely to feel their issues have really been heard though a survey. Most won’t bother to respond. Surveys are flat and two dimensional; those who do respond will only answer the questions you’ve asked in advance. There’s no option to probe more deeply like you can when you’re face to face. A key outcome of the realignment process is to create a bond between users and the DW/BI initiative. This outcome just doesn’t happen with surveys.

Identify and Prepare the Interview Team

It’s important to identify and prepare the involved project team members, especially since as some of the interviews could become contentious. The lead interviewer must ask great open-ended questions, but the individual also needs to be calm and mature; capable of receiving negative feedback without taking it personally and becoming defensive or combative. The interview scribe needs to take copious notes, pages of them from each session. A tape recorder isn’t appropriate for the realignment effort because it may cause interviewees to hold back on key organizational issues. Although we often suggest inviting one or two additional project members as observers in an initial requirements-gathering effort, this practice is less desirable in a realignment project because you’ll want the interviewees to be as open and honest as possible.

Before sitting down with the participants, make sure you’re approaching the sessions with the right mindset. Don’t presume that you already know it all; if done correctly, you’ll definitely learn during these interviews. Prepare yourself to listen effectively without becoming defensive. These sessions are the business community’s opportunity to share their perspective of the DW/BI project. They aren’t intended for you to try to explain how or why the situation developed.

Select, Schedule, and Prepare Business Representatives

The businesspeople involved should represent the horizontal breadth of the organization. Obviously, you’ll schedule individuals from groups currently served (or meant to be served) by the DW/BI environment. In addition, you should include groups that are potential DW/BI candidates. You want to uncover any issues that may be constraining the DW/BI project’s ability to serve these needs.

You also want to be sure to cover the organization vertically. Project teams naturally gravitate toward the superpower business analysts who are the most frequent and capable DW/BI users. While their insight is obviously valuable and important, don’t ignore senior executives and middle management. Otherwise, you’re vulnerable to being overly focused on the tactical here and now but losing sight of the real reasons for flagging business acceptance.

Scheduling the business representatives can be an onerous task. Be especially nice to any assistants as calendars are juggled. We prefer to meet with executives on their own, whereas we can meet with a homogeneous group of two to three people for those lower on the organization chart. We allow one hour for individual meetings and one and a half hours for the small groups. The scheduler needs to allow a half hour between meetings for debriefing and other necessities. Interviewing is extremely taxing because you must be completely focused for the session’s duration. Consequently, we only schedule three to four sessions in a day because our brains turn mushy after that.

When it comes to preparing the interviewees, the optimal approach is to conduct a project launch meeting with the participants. Business sponsors play critical roles, stressing their commitment and the importance of everyone’s participation. The launch meeting disseminates a consistent message about the realignment effort. It also generates a sense of the business’s project ownership. Alternately, if the launch meeting is a logistical nightmare, sponsors should communicate the same messages via launch memos.

Conduct the Interviews

It’s time to sit down face to face to gather feedback. The process usually flows from an introduction through structured questioning to a final wrap-up, as I’ll discuss.

Responsibility for introducing the interview should be established prior to gathering in a conference room. The designated kickoff person should script the primary points to be conveyed in the first couple of minutes when the meeting tone is established. This introduction should convey a crisp, business-centric message focused on the realignment project and interview objectives. Don’t ramble on about the hardware, software, and other technical jargon.

The goal of the interview is to get business users to talk about what they do and why they do it. Although in the long run you want to understand how well the existing DW/BI environment aligns with decision-making processes, you don’t want to be singularly focused on the DW/BI project’s current state too early in the interview. You’re most interested in how the organization uses information to make decisions so that you can align your efforts.

A simple, nonthreatening place to begin is to ask about job responsibilities and organizational fit. This is a lob ball that interviewees respond to easily. From there, we typically ask about their key performance metrics and how they use information in support of decision-making. Ultimately, we ask about their experience with the DW/BI project and its ability to support their requirements. If the interviewee is more analytic and hands on, we ask about the types of analyses currently performed, how easily they’re developed, and how well they deliver. When meeting with business executives, ask them about their vision for better leveraging information in the organization. You’re seeking opportunities to align future data warehouse deliverables with business demand.

As the interview comes to a conclusion, we ask interviewees about their success criteria for the DW/BI environment. Of course, each criterion should be measurable. Easy to use and fast mean something different to everyone, so you need to get the interviewees to articulate specifics. At this point in the interview, we make a broad disclaimer. The interviewees must understand that just because an opportunity was discussed doesn’t guarantee that it will be resolved immediately. You need to take advantage of this opportunity to manage expectations. Finally, thank interviewees for their insights and let them know what’s happening next.

Document, Prioritize and Reach Consensus

Now it’s time to write down what you heard. While documentation is everyone’s least favorite activity, it’s critical for both user validation and project team reference materials.

Two levels of documentation typically result from the interview process. The first is to write up each individual interview. This activity can be quite time-consuming because the write-up shouldn’t be merely a stream-of-consciousness transcript, but should make sense to someone who wasn’t in the session. The second level is a consolidated findings document. We typically begin with an executive summary, followed by a project overview that discusses the process used and participants involved. The bulk of the report centers on the findings, including specific opportunities for improving, enhancing, and expanding the existing DW/BI environment to better address business needs and expectations.

The realignment findings document serves as the basis for presentations back to senior management and other business representatives who participated. Inevitably, you’ve uncovered more opportunities than can be tackled immediately, so you need to develop consensus regarding priorities. Prioritization of efforts is an important step in leveraging and fostering an improved partnership to ensure the DW/BI effort aligns with the business. A highly effective tool for reaching agreement on a data warehouse roadmap and action plan is the prioritization quadrant, discussed in “The Bottom-Up Misnomer” (Sept. 17, 2003).

At this point, the DW/BI team has a solid understanding of what needs to be accomplished to better support the business community’s requirements and expectations. Delivering on the opportunities identified during the realignment process will establish an improved DW/BI environment that’s embraced and accepted across the organization.

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