I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat

Eyal Basch

On May 10th, 1940, Winston Churchill gave a speech before the British Parliament. It was his first after having taken upon himself the task of forming the government to replace that of Neville Chamberlain. This speech later became known as the “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech. (It is interesting to note that we often refer to it as the “Blood, sweat and tears” speech, leaving out the “toil”. Could this possibly say more about us than we’d like to admit?). At that stage, Britain was already at war and it was clear that the British attempt at appeasing Germany and avoiding war had met with total failure. In his speech, Churchill prepared his listeners for the hardships and price they would have to pay during the difficult period awaiting them. However, he  emphasized that there was no choice, and that the only option was victory over Nazi Germany.

Despite the distinct differences, it is possible to find some parallels between the British attitude towards World War II and the process of establishing a complete and comprehensive Business Intelligence system within an organization. Similarly, the concern regarding the high cost of the process and the uncertainty of its success has led organizations to try to avoid, evade or delay implementing BI properly in a variety of ways over the years. These organizations have either completely ignored the BI field or have implemented limited operational BI to replace operational reports. However, in these cases too, reality has come knocking at the door of the decision makers, leaving them with little choice. An organization interested in enjoying continued success must have a quality BI system.
The need became obvious, and therefore many organizations were prepared to pay the high price. It was clear to them that establishing a BI system was a complicated project, involving a lot of effort and the investment of many resources. This was a project that required dealing with many issues that had often been swept under the rug. However, it was a necessary investment for ensuring the organization’s continued success.

In recent years it appears there have been a lot of positive developments in the cost benefit equation associated with Business Intelligence (BI). New technologies have simplified the BI implementation process, making it quicker, simpler and cheaper than it previously was. In order to appreciate just how effective these trends are, we first need to understand what the main challenges are in establishing and maintaining organizational BI.

The Content Challenge

What should the BI contain, and just as importantly, what should it not contain?
This challenge deals with formulating the business strategy. The business strategy is often vaguely defined and interpreted differently by the various position holders.
Formulating the strategy is a mental exercise which requires no small effort on the part of the organization’s directors.
Once the strategy is formulated, the next step is defining how that strategy should be realized within the organization. The directors need to define a framework to guide their colleagues in making decisions and acting in a way that is consistent with the strategy. In order to define this framework, the directors need to define “road signs” to direct all the organization’s employees on how to act appropriately.
The content challenge is mostly a challenge of logic and the innovations in the field of BI do not offer any substantial assistance in solving it.

The Delivery Challenge

 How will users consume the information?
This challenge deals with visualization of the information and the functionality experienced by the information consumer.
One of the most important decisions that need to be made to ensure efficient and convenient use of the information pertains to the actions the information consumer will have to perform. If we limit the degrees of freedom too much, the user may feel unable to get everything he wants out of the system. If we allow too many degrees of freedom, the user may feel that the system is too complex and does not enable him to obtain the information in a simple and effective manner. Therefore, we need to put a lot of thought into finding the appropriate functionality for each user.
No less important is the manner in which the information is presented. We are all familiar with the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. However, when constructing the picture, it is important to understand the story we want to tell. Once we have an understanding of the story we can paint the picture that will convey the right story. Each display needs to have a clear business objective, and the manner in which the display is constructed needs to serve this purpose. The metrics do not determine the display, as each metric can be displayed in many various ways. The display is determined according to the business objective. For example, a display intended to reflect a trend in sales will be defined differently from one intended to reflect a comparison of sales across regions. The delivery challenge is mostly a challenge of logic and the innovations in the field of BI do not offer any substantial assistance in solving it.

The Integration Challenge

 Defining one organizational truth.
This challenge deals with integrating different approaches and perspectives that exist within the organization into one unified organizational approach. Business entities may be managed independently in various functions throughout the organization, and may also be defined differently. Each body manages a separate list and defines the business entity in the way that is most relevant to it.
For example, the organization’s customers; the finance department, marketing department and service department may each manage an independent list of customers and define those customers differently. The finance department may manage an international company spanning many countries as one customer, because there is one body making the payment. The marketing department may manage that same company as several customers, as there is a different purchasing body making autonomous decisions in every region. The finance department and the marketing department may manage a distribution company as one customer because the body making the payment and the body making the purchases are both one body. The service department however, will manage that same company as several customers, as it will have to make a distinction in the service it provides to the various companies making purchases from that distributor.
The challenge is distinguishing between these cases and providing a solution that gives a unified perspective to the entire organization, without harming the legitimate needs of each of the functions within the organization.
The integration challenge is mostly a challenge of logic and the innovations in the field of BI do not offer any substantial assistance in solving it.

The Implementation Challenge

The process of making the BI vision to an opertional system.
This challenge deals with all the layers related to the actual implementation of BI (and not just to its development). These are various layers which receive separate and distinct treatment at the implementation stage. This is a broad and varied challenge and includes components such as the logical design and data modeling, physical design, specification of the authorization model, defining the technology, back-end development, front-end development, and more.
The numerous BI related innovations offered today have a potentially positive affect at all stages of the implementation challenge. For example, one of the most promising innovations in the field of In Memory, such as Microsoft’s Tabular Model in combination with Pyramid Analytics, enables the integration of traditional BI components with In Memory components. This can significantly reduce development time without sacrificing the “one organizational truth”. The integration of In Memory components with traditional BI components enables greater flexibility than ever in responding to the changes the BI system requires.

In conclusion, it is possible to see an improvement in the cost benefit equation in the field of BI, mainly related to the issue of operational flexibility and the efficiency of the implementation process. This is due to the removal of technological constraints we previously had to contend with. However, the business challenges faced by the BI implementers remain unchanged. These challenges are still acute and are the major part of the iceberg, which is mostly submerged in water.