Monday, February 12, 2007

On Versatility and Being "Business Intelligent"

For some time I worked with a small BI consultancy (back when it was called a Data Warehousing consultancy). I had recently transitioned to this company from a prior role where data warehousing was more of a pastime than anything else. Thus, I was excited that BI would become a full-time pursuit. What I would come to learn from this relatively small consultancy was that the percentage technical work was itself less in proportion to the business case assessments and project management tasks involved in a given BI project. I was a young hot-head at the time, and found myself often on the defensive in light of ambiguity and the seemingly changing requirements and priorities mid-stream from project to project. I found difficulty in understanding the financial and operational terms used by our customers, and, also found myself at odds with a certain project manager who seemed to be more interested in saying "yes" to each and every change request without consulting the technical consultants (myself included). By the time I was ready to move on, I had a gutful of what I believed to be "corporate B.S.", and felt that I was best served to "stay technical". On my last day, I ventured over to head-office to hand in my laptop. The managing partner asked me aside, and mentioned that he was aware of my displeasure with how certain projects were (mis)handled. Instead of asking further questions, he simply said:

" be in business intelligence, one must be 'business-intelligent'... even though things didn't work out for you here, it's important for you to realize the value of understanding the customer's business domain, as well as more about project management in order to understand how to effectively argue for or against change in cost-related terms. You might want to consider taking a course in project management or learning more about business in general"

Ah, what did he know? I thought defiantly.... surely he wasn't out on the front lines and didn't endure what I had been through. At the time, I concluded that staying technical was the way to go.

Years later, I worked with a larger IT consultancy that prided itself in employing depth specialists in certain areas of technology. The spoils of war for the company's directors were terrific for a time, but as the company grew they realized the benefit of having more people on staff with project management and business analysis skills. This seemed like a good idea, but the bottom line of the direct costs of labour forcibly reduced the profit margin for the directors, since the non-technical specialists were typically as expensive as the technical resources, but, were not billing proportionately. At the same time, external market forces were having an impact on the company: customers were growing tired of interfacing with technical people who were perceived to be (or actually were) incapable of communicating in understandable terms. Also, smaller consultancies, by design, were delivering their services through individuals versed in each of business analysis, project management and technical depth. Agility itself became a key differentiator for certain consultancies, and, the versatility of their delivery people was typically the key enabler behind the scenes.

Versatilist: Coined by Gartner Research; a term to describe people who "are able to apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, equally at ease with technical issues as with business strategy."

The larger IT company endeavoured to change to meet the changing market demands, but had difficulty (at the time) due to the disruption and confusion behind the true aims for such versatility. Organizational change management became the real challenge , in a corporate culture where the technical resources ("techies" as they were called) were often the butt of closed door in-jokes and were the first to have their bonuses cut for achieving certifications (which, ironically, helped to achieve and maintain the company's partner status with a certain vendor). Other examples of coercive and manipulative powerplays were at work, with certain people obviously threatened by such change often acting as an obstacle to change itself. Many technical people, as I did, understood the value of versatility as it was communicated to us, but were unable to see the value in terms of our jobs with the company. One colleague of mine commented: "why would I want to learn more about a business analysis role, when my job specification affords zero bandwidth to perform such tasks?". Another asked "well, I'm one of those business analysts... what does this mean for my job if more of the techies are doing what I am paid to do?"Others still seemed to resent versatility being thrust upon us as yet another "cost-cutting move".

When faced with the prospect of change, we tend to resist; it's human nature, after all. After my first full-time (and somewhat negative) experience with a pure-play BI company, my natural reaction was to "stay technical.... to heck with the business side of things", and after the later experience, I felt that the push for versatility was more in the interests of a given company more than anything else. Nevertheless, change is coming to the IT profession in general, and to people working in the BI space in particular. Versatility IS important -- my experiences have taught me in the long run that, as a BI professional, having an equal balance of skills and knowledge within technology, business and process domains will actually deliver three key benefits:

1. For your customers: They need to know that their system in development to expose financial metrics in useful ways (for example), is in the capable hands of someone who understands BOTH the business case (specifically, the nature and need of such measurements, as well as where they originate in a general ledger) for a financial-based BI system AND the finer details of data profiling, ETL, OLAP and interactive reporting.

2. For your employers: Especially those of you in consulting roles, they need to know that they can comfortably position you in front of a customer, and, can manage customer expectations confidently in project cost-based terms-- you should know how to deliver a solution design which addresses functional requirements, and takes into account the existing environment, user profiles, security and how you will mitigate project risk. You should also know how to position cost-feature tradeoffs for each mid-stream change request during a project AND you should have the leadership skills to motivate, guide and mentor any juniors you are accountable for on a given project.

3. For your career: BI is an increasingly competitive space. With the emergence of the business discipline of Performance Management, broadening your mind to understand methodologies like the Balanced Scorecard is key. Most Performance Management initiatives are cyclical processes, with an aim towards continuous business improvement. A firm grasp of such processes are critical, both towards rounding out your technical and business skills. Regardless of whether you are self-employed, seeking your first job, coasting along nicely in your senior BI architect role, or ready to move to greener pastures in BI, only the most well-rounded professionals will be able achieve and sustain individual competitive advantage.

The reality is that we BI professionals can no longer remain (solely) technical, or, lament that business acumen and project skills aren't in our current job specifications. While a healthy amount of skepticism is encouraged in most companies, relegating versatility to a mere cost-cutting tactic is narrow-minded at best, and in my opinion, ignorant at worst. Take the initiative... if you are classic "techie", then pick up a business book on accounting and finance or operational excellence. If you know about those, then take a closer look at how professional services, manufacturing and retailers/wholesalers differ in their approach to financial planning. Find out more about how valuable intangible metrics are to organizations these days: how about sales and marketing metrics? What about those which pertain to human capital? You get the idea: there should almost always be more to learn in the world of business as a BI professional. While you're at it, get up to speed on Performance Management. Authors like Anthony Politano (Chief Performance Officer), Wayne Eckerson (Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring and Managing Your Business) and Paul Niven (The Balanced Scorecard Step by Step: Maximizing Performance and Maintaining Results) have provided enough perspective and insight to get you going. Oh, and if you are traditionally a BI analyst , business development manager / account executive, or, only focus on project management, then take the time to learn a little more about the technologies your team or company are delivering. You'll never know when you may be called upon to fill a temporary gap in your company's resource pool.... moreover, you'll have more confidence in demonstrating the products your company uses to deliver BI solutions and, it will give you more credibility in the eyes of your prospects than you may fully appreciate (prospects these days can smell both fear and B.S. in equal measure).

Regardless of you current side of the fence, you don't need to be an expert in these areas you explore outside of your comfort zone. It is simply in the effort you that put in towards being "business intelligent" does the value of being a versatilist show in your marketability and ultimately in your success.

- Adrian Downes

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