Ten Keys to Successful Microsoft Business Intelligence (cont.)

9/4/2010 5:04:30 PM
Read the first part

6. Creating an Inclusive Environment

Even in the busy midst of a BI implementation, I often see organizational leadership make the mistake of silence. When the people who are out there building, testing, and evaluating the new system's components send an e-mail (or some other clear communication) to a leader, they should receive some response right away — even if it says, in effect, "I don't know yet — give me some time." At least then the sender knows the message got through — and that helps head off feelings of isolation or abandonment. The worst possible thing is not responding — it gives the impression that the leader's head is firmly planted in the sand.

Some of the best leaders that I work with are very inclusive. They communicate constantly and aren't afraid of showing the mistakes they make while learning what works. Communication builds an inclusive environment where everyone feels they have some control of (or at least influence on) the outcome of any decision.

Delegating the ownership of problems or issues is a surefire way to create an inclusive environment. Delegation is not about passing the buck to the next person but engaging other people and using their input to move the project forward. Let employees come to the table with their proposed solutions before assuming they don't know what they're doing.

Beware, however, of leadership that only responds to good news. As soon as something comes up that either requires a tough decision or the delivery of difficult news, our Pollyanna higher-up simply stops responding and communicating. This behavior is not only bad for business but also damaging to the company culture.

When a leader fails to communicate, the culture breaks down; people automatically assume the worst and lose all respect for leadership. That's especially dire if the leaders in question are making a classic big mistake — assuming that they always know best and that the natural order of things is for them to make the big decisions unilaterally, pass those decisions down to their employees, and just watch the results roll in. (Hint: The results may bear no resemblance to what those folks had in mind.)

Bring employees into decisions early and often. Maintaining a constant flow of communication and collaboration helps address problems from various angles in a timely way, while ensuring that employees have a forum for discussion. (Hint: SharePoint happens to be designed for this sort of thing. For more about that, read on.)

7. Fostering a Culture of Communication and Collaboration

As potent as Microsoft Business Intelligence is in transforming how a company does business, company culture always plays as big a role in BI as any technology. Business intelligence is, in essence, making intelligent decisions based on valuable and relevant information. Microsoft BI facilitates the collection and delivery of information, but without a receptive company culture, a BI system will struggle (and may fail) to survive.

If the products and capabilities that make up Microsoft BI are any indication, Microsoft has already recognized the importance of communication and collaboration in organizational culture and is encouraging such cultures to grow and prosper. The main components of Microsoft BI reflect this approach:

  • Designed to sit at the center of the organization — essentially to be the heart of its intranet — SharePoint provides tools for communication, collaboration, and content management that make the intranet an active tool for encouraging company unity.

  • Integrating the power of SQL Server product with the features of SharePoint and user knowledge of Office applications (such as Word and Excel) strikes a balance between providing enhanced capabilities and keeping a familiar way of getting the work done.

  • Presenting ready-to-use BI information in the SharePoint environment provides not only a resource for decision-making, but also a way to integrate two bodies of knowledge: the information produced by the BI system and the employees' existing knowledge. Combining these two fronts is a huge step toward a more intelligent and efficient organization.

Being a consultant is a relatively unsettled way to make a living. I tend to bounce from one culture to another and never settle in with any particular group. The upside is that I get to see what works and doesn't work in a lot of different settings. I've seen how a culture can build a team up to do extraordinary things with seemingly average people — or tear down a team of superstars into a pile of mush that's barely able to accomplish even the most basic tasks. So it seems to me that one of the best uses of SharePoint — especially in the context of implementing a BI system — is to connect the people within the organization. A SharePoint site dedicated to the BI project provides a window into what's happening and why. Leadership can use the SharePoint blogs, discussion boards, wikis, and surveys to create and encourage a transparent and inclusive environment — of which BI then forms a natural part.

8. Starting with the Right Goals

The information that flows from your finished BI solution should be valuable and relevant to you and your organization. The best way to ensure that you get those goods is to start with the right goals — to ask the genie at the beginning of the BI project.

Relax. You don't have to break out the magic Eight Ball. Just imagine that a genie has appeared, and you can ask it anything at all about your organization. Instead of worrying about what's possible and what isn't possible, focus on what information you need to make better decisions and run your organization in a more intelligent manner. For example, if it would be a tremendous help to understand your sales cycles and customer buying habits, then start with those broad goals — and then narrow down to very specific questions.

The genie exercise can also give you some good hints about appropriate human-scale BI information to start with as you begin the initial iterative cycles of your BI implementation.

9. Reducing Risk

As bold as boardroom rhetoric can be in a flush year, nearly everybody in business gets a bit more timid in the face of risk. And risk is everywhere — especially where technology is concerned (and that's everywhere too). It's common, even customary, to be mystified by technology — to not-quite-understand all the components (and potential snags) in a new system until they've already been encountered and overcome.

I often see project managers ask developers how long it's going to take to complete some aspect of a technical project. The reply can go one of two ways:

  • If the developer has already completed the tasks and knows that a new component works, then the estimate can be pretty accurate because the remaining tasks (say, packaging up the code, documenting, and testing) are known.

  • If the developer has not yet figured out how to perform some key piece of functionality, then the estimate is at best a guess — and at worst a nearly-random number tossed out to appease the project manager.

Using an iterative approach to implementing Microsoft Business Intelligence reduces risk by reducing the unknown that all team members will face during each phase of the project. Since each iterative cycle spans the entire Discover, Design, Develop, and Validate lifecycle for each component, the biggest hurdles and risks are determined early in the project. And because practice makes perfect, the team gets more and more familiar with what works as they go along.

Another way to reduce risk is to make full use of your existing equipment. In this case, review the software your company already owns, and see whether it's packing already-licensed BI capabilities (or whether they're readily available). You may be pleasantly surprised:

  • If you already own the Enterprise edition of Microsoft SharePoint, then you already have a wealth of BI features at your fingertips — including the Business Data Catalog (BDC), the Report Center template, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), Excel Services, and InfoPath Form Services.

  • If you already own SQL Server, then you also own the Database Engine, Reporting Services, Integration Services, and Analysis Services (which includes OnLine Analytical Processing and Data Mining functionality.

  • If you don't already own the licensing for SharePoint or SQL Server, you can download trial versions of both these products and use the free trial period to test-drive them. It's a risk-free way to see how they may benefit your organization.

10. Maintaining Perspective

For a relatively new field, business intelligence has already sprouted a large and complex array of tools, techniques, products, experts, and expectations. Even so, its basic goal remains pretty simple: Transform raw data about how a business works into readily usable information that can help it make solid plans, use what it has to best advantage, become more collaborative, and get closer to its stated goals.

On a smaller scale, a look under the hood of Microsoft Business Intelligence shows two major components — SharePoint and SQL Server — that bristle with enough powerful features to seem intimidating at first. Even so, all these capabilities came together under the label of Microsoft BI for a straightforward reason: The new century has brought not only some stiff economic challenges, but also a newly collaborative way of doing business — which needed new tools. Microsoft saw the need; the current form of Microsoft BI is a powerful — but still early — response to that need.

On a smaller scale yet, Microsoft Office applications are expanding their powers way beyond the individual desktop machine, becoming familiar packages for powerful new functionality. Microsoft BI allows them to issue commands to servers and send sophisticated queries to databases. Excel (for example) already has so many features that surely only a small number of people fully understand the product — and now it's hobnobbing with databases? But it retains a familiar look and feel — and a savvy user base, because Microsoft figured out that familiar productivity software can help make new capabilities more understandable and usable. (Pretty smart.)

As a consultant, I've seen yet another intimidating complexity: the sheer number of different ways organizations use Microsoft products. The mind boggles. Of course, some of those uses work better than others. But feature-rich products can go in one of two directions: (a) they get used as a basic tool that just happens to have a trunkful of unused bells and whistles or (b) organizations will make sophisticated use of different components. Either way, the need is simple: Find the tool that works and get on with the job.


Whatever the broad similarities between organizations, every one has ways in which it's unique — especially in how it sets up its internal culture, its business processes, and even its computer systems. In-house folks who work in the corporate environment every day have experience in navigating that invisible maze. It's another complex form of valuable knowledge (vital, by the way, to setting up a BI system that both fits the company and invites frequent use). But the corporate goal is simple: Be your corporate self and keep going, taking on new capabilities as they prove useful. From the perspective of the individual employee, that's the big picture.

Arming yourself with knowledge about one such new capability — Microsoft Business Intelligence — gives you a perspective that nobody else in your organization possesses (at first, anyway — but just wait till they get a load of the new system you have in mind). It's often a struggle to avoid getting distracted by details such as how an SSIS package runs or what fields should be included in an SSRS report. But persevere. It's important to maintain a larger perspective and keep the overall goal of the BI-project-to-be in mind: Contribute to the longevity and effectiveness of your organization by introducing and implementing a new, more effective way for it to work.


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