Supporting BI/DW Certification at UW

Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing careers are hotter than ever! In the times when companies can’t hire skilled DW/BI candidates fast enough, many Washington educators are paying attention and have been updating their certification and degree offerings to account for the rapidly increasing demand.

Plaster Group is proud to take part in improving Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing curriculums and helping to ensure that the programs support emerging and existing trends in the field. Our consultants Wendy Parker and Michael Lisin are members of the advisory board at the University of Washington’s Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing Certificate programs. In addition, Wendy has been invited to represent BI/DW in UW’s Computing and IT certification advisory board.

Collaborative Business Intelligence: The Road to Better Decision Making

When I started out in Data & Analytics, one of my first roles was as an analyst at Washington Mutual Bank in Seattle.  I was responsible for a monthly product line report that went up to our executive manager who then shared it with her management and peers.  Although the report took a few hours to build, it took up to two weeks to research, explore, explain and footnote the data in a way that added value for the executives.  It wasn’t enough to just say that the number of CDs sold that month went up, I had to explain why they went up – and I had to be right.

It is situations like this that have made Collaborative Business Intelligence such an attractive idea.  Collaborative BI (also called Social Business Intelligence) is about bringing stakeholders and subject matter experts together to make better decisions.  The belief is that when people work collaboratively they are more likely to challenge assumptions, find gaps in other’s thoughts, and provide alternative viewpoints and areas of expertise.

Imagine my product line report being made available to sales (did we have a sales focus on CDs last month?), IT (did we have errors in data feeds related to CDs?), marketing (did we have an advertising push on CDs last month), etc.  Each of these groups could see the report, comment on it, add their own annotations and share their responses online and in context.  Six months later, if questions came up regarding the decisions that were made as a result, the information collected during the earlier collaboration sessions would be documented and auditable.

Collaborative BI has many Possible Forms

  • Report-centric discussion – allows BI users to focus their comments and feedback around a particular report.
  • General discussion – general discussions may be similar to report-centric discussion but including multiple reports (discussions about a dashboard for example) or other more general topic.
  • Annotations – annotations come in many forms but they generally allow the end user to add comments, highlights, etc. on top specific items in a report, focusing on their areas of expertise and/or ownership.

Benefits of Collaborative BI

  •  Faster and more informed decision-making – subject matter experts and decision makers can quickly share ideas and drive cohesive fact-based decisions.
  • Knowledge Sharing – encourages diverse groups to interact with a common focus and gather ideas that otherwise may not have been visible to the decision makers.
  •  Employee Satisfaction – empowers employees by giving them a means of voicing thoughts and ideas in a targeted way, and enables them to better see an association between a decision and the conversations that led up to it.
  • Stakeholder Involvement – with the right tools and/or processes, stakeholders can respond at a time that is convenient to them; this is especially important when stakeholders have busy schedules and are in multiple time zones.
  • Audit trail – decisions and conversations can be saved and referred back to at a later date; having a documented decision trail can also reduce decision churn and prevent having the same discussion multiple times.
  • Security – more cutting edge collaboration tools integrate security with their collaboration offering.  This enforces report permissions for those being asked to review a report and ensure they authorized to view it.

Collaborative BI does have it’s challenges – too many conflicting voices can make it difficult to come to agreement on an issue and, as with physical meetings, strong personalities can overwhelm a discussion if not managed appropriately.

Most major BI vendors now claim to be integrating collaborative BI into their platforms.  It is also becoming more common for businesses to use software that is separated from their BI tool offering but fosters collaboration.  This is a ‘hot trend’ in BI that I think is here to stay – I just wish it had been here a few years earlier.

PowerPivot – Simplified Self-Service BI

After a successful implementation of a data warehouse, the obvious next step is to provide a reporting solution or a delivery layer so business users can use the data for further reporting/analytics. A traditional approach is for IT to build a reporting solution comprised of managed reports and views, and deliver them through the company’s portal. This approach is often called a Full Service delivery method, because IT does most of the work. Continue reading “PowerPivot – Simplified Self-Service BI”

Overcoming Obstacles in the Agile Transition

By Grant Beck, Agile Solutions Practice Director

Recently I was tasked with the challenge of converting two project teams to an Agile Scrum software delivery model. Our client’s management team had become more aware of the benefits of Agile and was anxious to put it into practice. I was somewhat surprised at the initial protests from a few individuals on the teams to working ‘Agile’. By definition, Agile means ‘quick and well-coordinated in movement’ or ‘marked by an ability to think quickly’. Who would be opposed to such a change?

Change is stressful and often unwelcome, especially when imposed upon longtime, established employees by an ‘outside’ consultant – we had significant potential for conflict! Success depends in part on salesmanship, part on political positioning, part on psychology, and in no small part on patience. The process we went through was both successful and rewarding, and I’d like to share a few a key points from my experience. While these points are in the context of transitioning to Agile Scrum, they can easily be generalized to organizational change overall.

Beware of “Best Practices”

One of the terms commonly used in business is ‘best practices’. Best practices are wonderful guidelines, but too often they are seen as the holy grail of the way we work. We rarely question a best practice. It is, after all, ‘best’! Therein lays the danger. Generally in business, and specifically in Agile, the desire is for continuous improvement. When we stop trying to get better we get left behind, we miss opportunity, and we stagnate. Best practices should continually evolve if they are to remain best practices.

Don’t codify the way things should always be done. Circumstances change, businesses change, and technologies change. Acknowledge the value that exists in current processes, but challenge yourself and the team to continually reassess. When you hear the term ‘best practice’, we always ask: “How can we improve our approach?” Best practices are general guidelines but they need to change based on the needs of a situation/project.

Think Big

Consider how the transition to Agile affects the whole business – not just IT. It is important to ‘socialize’ and sell this methodology to all levels of the business. A purely top-down or bottom-up approach will not be sufficient to enact a change. The functional team needs to understand their role in helping to define user stories. Management needs to understand the importance of persistently communicating down and reinforcing the expectation of the new work habits. Seek out individuals in all areas who are ‘on-board’ with the change and enlist them in perpetuating change throughout the organization. Show employees how the model works for them. Get people excited!

Be Willing to Adjust (it is Agile, after all)

Enacting change isn’t about cramming a methodology down someone’s throat. Don’t lose sight of the big picture – remember to pick your battles. It won’t do you any good to get into a heated debate about something like whether the team should use an online tool to track progress on a burn-down chart versus using a white board. Let that one go and keep the big picture in mind.

Negotiate. If someone on the team is insistent on using a certain document or form, be flexible enough to accept this if it means getting that person on board with the process.

Try enacting change in different ways. Maybe a big flashy PowerPoint demonstration about the benefits of Agile will help – maybe meeting with a team member one on one. Take some action and observe the response. Then try something different. Experiment with differing levels of pressure. Be creative and observant, adjusting your approach as necessary.

Be Respectful and Listen

I remember one meeting where we had introduced some of the Agile concepts to the delivery team and I knew there would be some very vocal protests about the changes we were hoping to implement. I also knew that this situation would likely turn to a ‘feeding frenzy’ of negativity and confrontation once the ball got rolling. I told myself before the meeting to expect this and to, under all circumstances, keep my mouth shut. It was important to ‘weather the storm’ and let the team express their frustration and ‘get it all out’ without my being defensive. It also allowed me the opportunity to assess each individual’s objections and begin thinking about how to continue the dialog once the fervor died down.

In Conclusion…

A common mistake made by consultants is to walk into a situation where they know of one way to implement a new methodology without right-sizing to a client’s needs, potentially ignoring existing processes or organizational structure. As consultants, we are guests in someone else’s house. Making an effort to listen to and empathize with the client will go a long way in establishing a productive dialog. As consultants, we may feel that our job is to come in and immediately apply our expertise to a situation when sometimes it is best to sit back and listen, discovering the best path forward.

Enacting organizational change and affecting the way a business works is difficult and challenging. I’ve learned a lot along the way and am pleased to see that change is possible with even with the most ingrained of processes and intransigent of clients. Plaster Group employees, by virtue of their caliber and experience, are well positioned to help customers adopt new and improved ways of doing things. The depth of our proficiency and breadth of our knowledge base allows us to leverage that experience to help our clients navigate to better processes and sounder solutions.

Plaster Group serving on the TDWI Northwest chapter board

The TDWI Northwest chapter has announced its board members for 2013 and Plaster Group is pleased to be represented by Wendy Parker (President) and Ted Schill (Sponsorship Coordinator). Look for exciting chapter events in 2013, including guest speakers Michael Scofield on January 22nd in Seattle (Data Visualization) and Bill Inmon on March 13th in Bellevue (Data Warehouse 2.0). You can learn more about TDWI Northwest on their chapter page or on LinkedIn.