Making BI Matter: Getting Your Chips on the Executive Table
By Chris Bongard
18th February 2013

As an information management professional and leader, there is likely no greater champion for business intelligence in your organization than you. You probably have several senior managers who act as BI cheerleaders, lauding its merit.

Even with all the impetus behind the BI movement, when the chips are down and a big decision needs to be made, does BI really have an ante in the bet? How much does BI truly impact the executives in your organization? Behind all the rhetoric that values and prioritizes data-driven decision-making, is there a demonstrable interest in the use of BI by your senior management team members? When was the last time an executive called you and started the conversation with, “I was looking at the data, and ...”?

Making Sure What You Do Matters

To make sure that BI matters to your executive leadership, ensure what you do matters – it seems straightforward, but this factor is often overlooked. Let me make the distinction clear: BI, in the general sense, is a vague term referring to an initiative that most executives say is important. BI, in the specific sense, is what you and your team do on a day-in, day-out basis. All the data you analyze, all the reports you run, all the dashboards you develop — do they matter? When the cards are dealt for a big decision and the bets are called, is your stake in the pot? If not, here are some tips on how to get your chips on the executive table.

  1. Affect Their Bottom Line

The bottom line has been, and probably always will be, the strongest driver of executive decision-making. Executives are held accountable to the bottom line and it sometimes even effects what goes into their wallet. Therefore, your BI efforts should focus on finding ways to impact the bottom line of not only the organization, but of your executives as well. Dig into the profits and big payoffs, and deliver data that pinpoints what paid the biggest dividends.

If an executive is trying to cut costs, tie their BI metrics and KPIs back to line items in their budgets. If the same performance can be achieved with 10 paper clips instead of 20, show them the data. Also, be aware of the measures on their individual performance appraisals. Focus on what they are specifically being held accountable for. When you can deliver information that impacts their pocket or reputation, they’ll begin to care very much about what you can deliver.

  1. Give Them the Ability to Anticipate

My colleague and mentor Dale Meyerrose, U.S. Air Force Major General (Retired) and founder of the Meyerrose Group, taught me that the most important key to leadership is the ability to anticipate. Anticipation eliminates unintended consequences, reduces rework and puts risk-mitigation actions at the forefront. Execution becomes easier with anticipation. Thus, giving your senior management group an enhanced ability to anticipate should be a critical BI aim.

The key to this is developing leading indicators, instead of simply historic measures. Does the information you provide look only into the past, or does it predict what’s coming in the future? Are your BI deliverables turned toward hindsight or foresight? There’s more to forecasting than a best-fit line extrapolating the past few periods’ worth of data. Find the external factors that predicated past ups and downs and build those into your indicators and forecast models. Help an executive anticipate and react effectively to achieve a big win and you’ll have a fellow BI champion (and fan of yours) for life.

  1. Know Their Game

One of the biggest hindrances to those of us in the information management profession (or any IT field, for that matter) has been our perceived disconnect from business needs. This occurs because we overemphasize the means (the technology) instead of the end (serving the business). Years ago when I pioneered the first BI initiative within my organization, there was a long-tenured executive who was a critical gatekeeper of data that I needed to get our data warehouse off the ground. She had a tough-as-nails reputation and I was warned that if she smelled impending change she’d buck against the effort. What did I do? I scheduled two full weeks with her business unit. I met with her entire staff. I learned their processes like the back of my hand. I brought them donuts. I sat in her office and listened to her war stories.

What happened as a result of that effort was incredible: She extended a great deal of trust and access to me. Not only that, she became a voice and an advocate for my work at the senior management meeting table. I later found out that her biggest reason for resisting change was the slew of “consultants” who “only came around to tell her how to do her job.” So by my efforts in getting to know her game, she knew 1) I cared, 2) I understood her business needs and 3) I could integrate BI (something new) into what she was already doing.

  1. Highlight a Big Win

Executives are human; they want to be seen as successful and stand out among their peers. Use this motivation in your favor. Buried in the mass of big data in your repositories are potential hidden treasures. Those gold nuggets and rough gems could be refined to reveal an impressive find, which could shine light on a big success an executive brought to fruition. Using the data to highlight a big win, windfall profit or huge success pats your executive (and ultimately yourself) on the back. Make an executive look good and he or she will likely reciprocate.

As practitioners, we are responsible for making BI happen for our organizations and its leaders.  We can’t ride the wave of industry buzz indefinitely. Unfortunately, the data does not always speak for itself. We must show its direct impact within our companies. The key is getting our chips in the game played by those at the top — ultimately making what we do matter to them. Al bets have been called. Are you on the sidelines or in the action?

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