The field of business intelligence (BI) has a bad reputation because many BI programs are not successful. Part of the problem is that many see BI as a “project”. Projects have a definite “end”, and when BI is characterized this way it becomes yet another thing to do, rather than a better way to do what your association is already doing – which is making decisions. Using data to make decisions mitigates risk and increases your likelihood of making a good decision. We think BI is best described as an iterative data discovery process, and framing it that way from the start can go a long way toward helping association staff understand what to expect as outcomes.
During our many years of working with associations, we have found the following factors are key for a successful BI initiative:
- An in-depth understanding of the “business” of the association, which is developed when IT works in close collaboration with a wide range of association business staff. Understanding what questions the business users have and why, is the prerequisite for a solid BI strategy. After all, BI is a business program where technology is just the enabler.
- An extensive grasp of what data is available, where and in what form, as well as its accuracy, completeness and consistency. It goes without saying that it is also essential to understand how the different data elements relate to each other.
- Compelling data visualizations that tell a story are the hallmark of every successful BI program we have seen. The level of detail must be appropriate for the business user because different audiences have different needs. C-suite wants high level trends and mid-management needs more detail. All visualizations are not equal! The use of color, position and scale all set the stage for understanding or misunderstanding.
- An internal appreciation for managing change is essential, which means investing time to communicate and perform internal “marketing” about the importance of data as an asset and analytics as a tool to make better decisions. Providing hands-on technical and analytical training is also critical because we are asking association staff to change how they make decisions.
External consultants can help because:
- Associations are complex, with many moving parts and many things to be measured – working with a consultant who already has experience with association key performance indicators (KPIs) can increase the speed of progress
- Different departments and staff may have different visions of what is important – each must be considered in terms of the organization’s overall strategic plan. Often an external resource can help present an objective view.
- There is often a natural desire to start with the current state and modify it, rather than the more difficult but more successful approach of determining what is necessary to meet the strategic objectives.
Changing the way an association makes decisions is like changing its very DNA. A successful BI program really results in a cultural transformation, whereby an association goes from making decisions based on instinct, politics, or tradition, to making decisions based on data which is informed by the wisdom of the leader’s experiences.