Getting over the ‘P’ word to expand BI horizons

Many in the business intelligence industry talk about organizational problems getting in BI’s way, but few talk about them very much.

Scratch the surface of most presentations and conversations — such as last week at the TDWI conference in San Diego — and you find people problems bobbing right up alongside data problems: indifferent executives who undermine BI, short-sighted silo keepers, and IT people who enrage business users with paternalism, to name a few top quirks. If only data were all we had to transform!

One business manger at last week’s TDWI conference in San Diego told me that one of his most daunting tasks during a recent data warehouse implementation was persuading silo managers to release their death grip. For this task, he was on his own. Couldn’t someone have briefed him on the objections he was likely to hear? Or tactics to overcome resistance?

One organization that seems to have solved its people-problem was Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City. Their impressive success with Hewlett-Packard tools was based on commitment to data for strategic advantage and shrewd orchestration. They also had a steady, guiding hand from HP. For example, as Blue Cross Blue Shield built new structures, it avoided upsetting stakeholders by leaving old structures in place for 18 months. (I hope to have much more on that story in the next couple of weeks, thanks to John Santaferraro, HP senior director of marketing, business intelligence.)

Several people in the BI crowd do talk often and thoughtfully about organizational problems. Maureen Clarry, CEO of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network and longtime TDWI instructor, teaches “Power, Politics, and Partnership in Business Intelligence Projects” at every TDWI conference. Participants see for themselves how position shapes behavior. Those short-sighted silo keepers, for example, could flip into data-sharing maniacs if assigned a different position.

Jill Dychè, partner at Baseline Consulting, teaches “BI from Both Sides: Aligning Business and IT,” with strategies to avoid or pave over organizational potholes. She suggests, for example, dodging the perception that BI is “so much data loading and report provisioning.” She writes in email, “We find that the extent to which BI is viewed as a program — with platforms and tools merely components — is the extent to which BI teams are productive and visible in their companies.”

Wayne Eckerson, director of TDWI Research, also addresses these issues, most colorfully with his idea about “purple people.” They are a little bit business-blue and a little bit technology-red, and the purple coloration they acquire lets them traverse the IT-business rivalry.

Wayne spells out some important characteristics for this job, such as maturity and knowledge of technology and business domains. The best are “switch hitters,” by which he probably means to imply that they’re persuasive wherever they stand. In fact, “purple” sounds like a euphemism for another “P” word that Jill actually spells out: politician.

Bad word or not, it’s a critical function. A good politician’s essential function is to coax rivalrous parties into agreement. If that’s the kind of function Wayne sees for the purple people, then they really are, as he says, “the key to BI success” — at least at one level.

Purple may not help much at higher levels. Wayne’s knowledge of of business intelligence is far deeper than mine, but my experience elsewhere makes me think these people are just one of many keys. When I was a sort of purple person myself — in the late ‘90s, bridging an arrogant Web development group and a couple of marketing groups accustomed to full control of their media — my own skill at listening, negotiating, and arm-twisting was only one key. Another key was my boss. At first I had a strong one, later I had an indifferent one, and even later I had virtually no boss at all. I felt like my district shifted boundaries each time, my agenda with it.

One friendly executive suggested I stand up and promote the Web project around the company at any meeting that would let me. He said, “Show ‘em how great it is, and the credit will rub off on you.” Just like a politician running for office.

If I were a purple person today working in BI, where would I go after I’d exhausted training by Maureen, Jill, and Wayne? Most likely, I’d turn for inspiration to books on politics and influence, such as biographies by Robert Caro. Actually, I’ve gone there already, but only because to me politics is a good word. No, you don’t want to emulate Caro’s subjects, just clean and adapt some of the principles they used.

One thing seems clear to me: If purple people, would-be purple people, red people, and blue people are to expand the BI horizon, conversations have to go longer and deeper into the people problems. We start by ending the prissy avoidance of that word that at its best connotes people, perceptions, and compromises: politics!

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