The Tantalus Paradox

Eyal BaschThe Tantalus Paradox refers to a situation in which on the one hand, a manager is surrounded by information systems flooding him with a lot of data about his organization, and on the other hand he does not receive the information he needs when he needs it in order to make decisions. On more than one occasion this phenomenon leads to frustration among the organization’s managers and is disturbing to the IT managers.

Tantalus is a figure from Greek mythology who was punished by the gods. His punishment was to stand in a lake of water beneath the branches of a fruit tree. Every time he tried to take a sip of water, the water receded, and every time he tried to eat some fruit from the tree, the branches would elude his grasp. Thus Tantalus was sentenced to being surrounded by the abundance of the earth, yet never being able to quench his thirst or satisfy his hunger.

Much like Tantalus, the manager can take no comfort from the amount of information surrounding him when the piece of information he actually needs is missing. On the contrary, the amount of data available to the manager on a large variety of topics only increases his frustration at not being able to get to the specific information. In this day and age, information has become a commodity that is abundantly available to everyone. In our private lives information has become available mainly through the internet, and in our business lives through the BI systems that are present in one configuration or another in every organization. Most human beings (and most organization managers belong to that species of mammal) can be understanding towards shortage when it comes to a rare resource, as important as it may be. However, they are not prepared to accept shortage when it comes to a commodity they have become used to. A shortage of information nowadays is considered a malfunction in the most basic of services.

Another factor that increases the manager’s level of frustration is the size of the investment it took to get the organization to that state. The organization has invested considerable resources in order to establish a BI infrastructure that would make the information available. When the BI infrastructure was set up, many promises were made, including about how the business information would be available, reliable and consistent. The more frequently the manager experiences the Tantalus Paradox, the more he will feel that BI is not a worthwhile investment. At best, the manager may arrive at the inevitable conclusion that the BI implementation in his organization was a failure. At worst, that manager will completely lose his faith in BI as an approach.

So then, what are the causes behind the Tantalus Paradox and how can this situation be prevented?

At the opening of his book, “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy notes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Similarly, it is possible to say that the causes behind the Tantalus Paradox are different and varied, almost as varied as the organizations experiencing that situation. Yet there is one way that if implemented, will enable restricting this phenomenon to a minimum.

In order to implement a BI layout that is as resistant as possible to the Tantalus Paradox, there are several guidelines we need to follow.


A BI layout that is built properly provides the “nervous system” for the organization in implementing its business strategy. The BI enables all the levels of management to understand and receive guidance on how to move in the right direction, based on the business strategy. The BI also reflects how efficient the steps the organization has taken to accomplish its strategy were. The BI layout is in fact a technological representation of the business vision. Therefore, it is clear that the first step is to understand what the business strategy is. Only once we have arrived at that understanding (which often is not at all a simple thing to do) can we make a decision regarding what the BI should include, and set its scope accordingly.

This stage ensures that we will be able to provide the information that interests the managers.


Once we have understood the business strategy, we need to quantify the measurement method, or in simpler terms, to decide what the relevant metrics are. It’s one thing to understand what the strategy is, and a completely different story to have the ability to perform the measurements that serve the strategy. The more we talk to managers in the organization, the more we will accumulate an increasing number of potential metrics. All the metrics are interesting and all have been defined after some serious consideration. However, the only question we need to ask ourselves at this stage is: Does the metric help to achieve the business strategy? We will be surprised to see how many of the proposed metrics have nothing to do with the strategy, as the senior managers understand it. In fact, these metrics represent the level of divergence from the implementation of the strategy, the farther away we get from the level of senior management. We have to focus only on those metrics that contribute, even if indirectly so, to achieving the business strategy. Screening the metrics will usually create a lot of resistance, as it will appear to some of the people involved as if critical information is being lost.

This stage serves to prevent the BI system from overwhelming managers with unnecessary information.


Quite a few BI projects start out as a decision to present the information stored in the operational systems in a convenient manner. This is a surefire way to flood users with irrelevant information and leave out important information. In order to achieve comprehensive yet focused BI, we need to start the implementation process by understanding the perspective of the most senior level of management. Naturally, as we move down the managerial pyramid we will witness a widening of the “information funnel”. The range of metrics will broaden and the depth of required details will be increased.

It is extremely tempting to start the process of building the BI layout from the data level up. Firstly, this approach requires significantly less effort compared to the top down approach. We can perform the BI implementation without involving the most senior managers, and make do with minimal involvement of the mid-level managers. In this approach, establishing the BI is naturally part of the IT team’s set of skills and is based on the IT systems they are highly familiar with. Another advantage tipping the scales in this direction is the desire to minimize risks, in other words, not to create grandiose expectations on the part of the management, but rather to approach the challenge modestly and then reap accolades.

We cannot downplay the importance of these advantages, and therefore this approach cannot be ruled out immediately. However, it is important to remember that beginning the modeling of the BI layout with an understanding of the strategy (and hence with an understanding of the most senior level of management) is the only way to ensure the BI layout will provide a proper solution to the organization’s strategy, and to prevent the Tantalus Paradox.