Book review: The profit impact of business intelligence

08-02-2011 - Wouter van Aerle

By: Wouter van Aerle

In search of relevant literature that adressess the business side of BI, I encountered this book written by Steve Williams and Nancy Williams. Steve and Nancy are instructors at the TDWI and run their own firm, DecisionPath. If there’s one message that remains after reading the book, it’s that BI should be used to impact profits and business performance. This message is repeated so often that it becomes somewhat annoying but I guess that’s a kind of (American) style of writing. Nevertheless, that message is most valuable: all too often the emphasis is on better data, sexier tools or new analytics but less on how this is supposed to impact processes that drive profits and performance (I’m beginning to sound like them…).

Let’s have a brief look at the outline of the book. The first chapter stresses the key message but for me the most important content concerns two other key points: the need for process engineering and the need for change management.  This viewpoint was also brought forward in their 2003 article in Business Intelligence Journal. Especially the process engineering-perspective is important: business processes need to be re-engineered as a result of other (more sophisticated) use of information. It would have been nice if this viewpoint had been elaborated more in the book. Change management deals with changing the business practice and thus human behaviour as a result of changed information provision and business processes. Common change management-practices – like Kotter’s Leading Change approach – apply to this one, but the value is in emphasizing the imperative that BI-initiatives require change management to be succesful.

The next two chapters deal with opportunity analysis and risk- and readiness assessment. Once one has adopted the paradigm set forth in the first chapter, the risk and opportunity-assessment become rather straightforward. The key to do a proper assessment is in understanding the paradigm. Chapter 4 deals with their development methodology, the BI Pathway, and to be honest, this was a somewhat disappointing chapter. To me, the methodology didn’t bring any new fundamental insights and rather than providing some new in-depth knowledge or skills, the reader is encouraged to take a course at the TDWI. Moreover, I would sincerely refrain from presenting an overview of the method (Fig. 4-2 p. 70) to a business audience. For a non-IT person it contains a lot of detail and techno terminology.

BI people tend to see the world differently from the rest (guilty, I used to do that too) and the BI Pathway is just another example. It’s content is good but I see little value in wrapping it into  another methodology. In my opinion, BI professionals should strive to adhere to common standards and frameworks, like TOGAF and RUP. Such an approach does not inhibit or exclude the special treatment of specific BI-aspects.

Chapter 5 is about leading a change progam and here a need for changing the culture of information usage is stressed. Next to that, required core competencies are listed and these provide a valuable checklist for a BI-program. The next chapter deals with the IT that is specific to BI and should have no secrets for any experienced BI professional. In a way, the 7th chapter extends the opportunity analysis of chapter 2 and provides several more specific examples of how BI can impact profits and performance. Basically, chapter 8 is about the don’ts and illustrates common pitfalls, like lack of program management, insufficient information requirements and using an OLTP infrastructure. The final chapter concludes with a view over the horizon.

As explained at the start, the key message is to focus on performance improvements and the primary value of the book is that that message has been written down. However, for a book that intends to convey this thinking, it still contains a lot of BI-technical details, which is a bit odd to me considering that the target audience are managers and executives. Apart from that, as a BI-professional, I’m curious about the HOW. On several occasions, some very BI-specific issues are illustrated. A good example is the observation that end-users tend to define their requirements in terms of reports because that is what they are used to. This observation is a step-stone for describing ways to improve the requirements process but the book provides this kind of deepening too little. A good step-stone to write another book…