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The Stewards of Business Intelligence
TDWI Spring '08: The most important element in BI -- the human factor -- is also the most-often overlooked.
Posted May 13, 2008
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CHICAGO -- Many accepted definitions of business intelligence (BI) don’t include any references to people or intelligence -- both of which are critical for a healthy, successful BI culture, consultant David Wells told an audience here yesterday during his keynote address at the The Data Warehousing Institute World Conference. After suggesting that the older definitions of BI were insufficient, Wells offered the audience a better one: "the ability of an organization or business to reason, plan, predict, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend, innovate, and learn in ways that increase organizational knowledge, inform decision processes, enable effective actions, and help establish business goals."

People, Wells explained, are instrumental to delivering many of the elements of that definition -- including reasoning, thinking abstractly, and comprehending, to name just a few. "When analytical strength and curiosity combine with a drive to gain business insight, then you have a talented business analyst," he said.

Analysts are among the group of people who constitute critical elements of a firm’s BI culture. Others, according to Wells, include how -- and how well -- the firm applies intellect, knowledge, experience, capabilities, and talents. "People are challenging mostly because we interact. We work with people and we work with groups -- and those groups interact with other groups," he said. "These are the seeds of culture: Business is defined as a social science."

Wells added that culture in a company is defined by people's beliefs and expectations, their communications and behaviors. "Culture is tangible because we can identify what we think, say, and do," he said. "And [culture] is actionable because we can change what we think, act, and do."

BI cultures are very complex and include elements of analytics, innovation, discovery, consensus-building, measurement, accountability, learning, decision-making, performance, and continuous improvement -- as well as a host of other factors, according to Wells. But not all BI cultures are productive, he noted. Wells described an unhealthy BI culture as one that consists of hostile and suspicious relationships; uncertain and anecdotal effectiveness; reactive alignment; fuzzy and uncertain accountability; and assumed responsibility, commitment, and values.

A healthy BI culture, by contrast, includes friendly and trusting relationships; measured effectiveness; proactive alignment; clear and communicated accountability; designated responsibility; declared commitment; and defined values. "For BI to flourish," Wells said, "we must consciously establish core beliefs that promote fact-based analysis, information sharing, and transparancy."

For the BI culture to continue to thrive, it must continue to evolve. Change, Wells warned, will often be met with resistance -- that may seem challenging, but it should be expected. Such resistance is preferable to apathy, he added: "Positive change is achieved through participation and engagement of those who are affected." He also stressed the importance of accountability for activities and results as being directly related to an enterprise’s effectiveness.

"We can’t create a BI culture," Wells concluded. "But we can and should shape the BI culture that exists. Culture is the collective beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions of a group of people. We are people and BI depends on us. Thus we are all stewards of BI culture."


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