Why culture change is key to the success of business intelligence technology

What's the value of technology if not to solve real business problems? Saltare's Phil Husbands explains the importance of tying culture and processes with technology.

It’s well understood that successful Business Intelligence (BI) is about more than just technology. Yet despite how obvious that seems, many BI projects still put too much focus on technical aspects such as data warehousing and analysis tools. Consequently, those BI projects struggle to achieve success, as the technology fails to adequately connect with a business’s people and processes. There’s a simple reason behind this, which is that the non-technical aspects of BI are hard to define and harder still to master. Unlike BI technology, BI culture cannot simply be installed and switched on.

Real BI success is measured on the positive business change that is driven or enabled by the information that the business consumes. Organisations that have a genuine appetite for real BI success, must face up to the challenge of establishing a healthy BI culture in the business, as opposed to simply acquiring and deploying BI technology.

Fundamentally, a healthy BI culture is typified by two things. Firstly, a business’s processes must be appropriate for achieving the business’s goals. If they’re not, it doesn’t matter how well informed those processes are, they will always struggle to deliver success. Good reporting alone can’t fix bad processes. Secondly, the people in a business need to understand how to interpret and apply the right information to those processes. Good reporting has no value if it’s not used correctly.

So what’s the best way for a business to build a healthy and effective BI culture? Every business is different, so there’s no single correct answer to this question. However, one approach that’s effective in the majority of cases, is to grow BI culture from the BI success that already exists in your business.

You might now be wondering just where the current BI success is in your business! Nevertheless, it’s almost certainly there. To find it, remember that real BI isn’t just about the reports, dashboards and analyses that come from your BI technology. Real BI exists anywhere that people and processes are using information for positive effect, even if the tools they’re using are relatively mundane. Yes, Excel. I’m talking about you!

It’s impossible to improve an organisations BI culture just by implementing new BI tools. Instead, work to consolidate situations where real BI is already happening. Even if the tools being used are ones that you think you’d like to evolve away from, accept that right now they are the tools that people are comfortable using. That is a hugely significant factor in the ability of people to use the right information in the right way. Think about when someone first learns to drive a car. Everything requires concentration. Even simple gear changes require specific attention, and the momentary lapses in focus on the road ahead is what causes leaner drivers to typically swerve their way down the street. When a person becomes accustomed with a car’s controls, driving becomes second nature and attention is freed up for focusing on being a safer, better driver. When it comes to driving  the success of your business, don’t ask people to be more effective whilst at the same time requiring them to learn new tools.

Embrace the pockets of real BI that are already in your business, by applauding them and supporting them with help and positive recognition. Find out what things your central IT department can provide that will be of benefit, such as more highly available and cleaner data, and technical assistance in creating or distributing reports. Those pockets of real BI will quickly benefit, and the people aligned to them will be grateful and willingly engaged with the IT team. In doing so, this seeds the creation of a centralised BI function that is successful from the start, has not alienated anyone, and is something that more people will want to get involved with.

Once you have done this in one part of your business, take a pause for a short while. Allow the benefits to stick by resisting the temptation to continue pushing for more change, and instead focus on communicating the success, no matter how small. When it comes to BI culture change, the saying ‘if you build it, they will come’ does not apply. However, if you foster what really works and then shout about it, people will willingly participate! Don’t rush to introduce new tools and methods too soon.

After a few weeks or months of low-level success, use the healthy relationship between the business and IT to begin more actively searching for scenarios where an evolution away from current BI approaches would increase benefits. To maintain good people engagement, consider establishing a ‘BI Lab’ (which sounds exciting and will make people want to join in) and focus it on BI opportunity scenarios as targets for BI innovation. Certainly call it out as ‘BI innovation’, as this is compelling and promotes engagement.

Look for parts of the business that stand out as working with information in ways that are clearly different to those that the BI successes were experienced in. BI requirements and opportunities exist anywhere that people and processes are not using information for positive effect, and in those same areas you will find the next rounds of future BI advocates. By iterating from here, you can establish an approach to BI culture that rapidly prototypes new solutions and ways-of-working, which fail fast and succeed visibly.

Phil Husbands is the co-founder of Saltare.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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