Ballmer and Muglia have it wrong

“It’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools.”

I’ve been monitoring the twittersphere and blogosphere about the new BI tools coming from Microsoft. While I am excited about these new capabilities, the “buzz” around these things also creates some concerns.

Over the past ten years, I’ve been fascinated by the persistence of the idea that all BI needs is better tools. I am not arguing against better tools by any means – who doesn’t love a great piece of software to accomplish a given task?

The issue is that it’s not simply better tools that lead to successful use of analytics. Possessing Excel doesn’t turn me into an CPA, nor does having a copy of Illustrator turn me into a graphic artist.

I am not suggesting that BI should only be the domain of the privileged few. But making better tools available to business stakeholders is putting the cart before the horse. Which of course begs the question, “What’s the horse?”

The “horse” is of course, much harder to identify than a software purchase, which I think is one of the reasons why tools tend to get the focus over other more nebulous issues. In my opinion, the critical piece that allows effective use of whatever tools are at hand is when an organization embraces an “analytic mindset”. In other words, peoples perceptions, beliefs, and capabilities must be the first change agent. Only then can tools become part of the solution.

The analytic mindset looks like:

  • Intolerance for siloed data, “spreadmarts“, do it yourself ETL
  • Belief in the value of analytics for Corporate Performance Management, that goes all the way to the CxO level. This includes
    • sponsorship of priorities
    • creation of cross departmental teams
    • allocation of budgets.

  • Acknowledgement that the whole problem won’t be solved in a single deployment, but it’s better to evolve towards a long term vision, than to do nothing
  • Emphasis on communication and education
  • Deep involvement of the business stakeholders, making them partners (with IT) in the development of the BI systems within the organization

Call me cynical, but I am bracing myself for the questions that come after Office 2010 and Gemini are released and in wide use: “We’re now able to look at 100 million rows in Excel, but our people are still arguing over what “the truth” is, and we still have a debate over what success looks like for our organization. These tools aren’t any good.”

I am working with one organization that is embracing the “Analytic Mindset” right now. The C-level sponsors have intentionally not upgraded tools but have instead devoted resources to education and building a sound data infrastructure. I have much better hopes for this organization that is using 4 year old tools, than for any organization that pins its hopes simply on better tools.

The question I am left wondering is “Who is responsible for promoting the message of the ‘analytic mindset’?” TDWI does a pretty good job with their “BI Maturity Model“. It would be great if some of the tool vendors started to reinforce this idea. Ironically if they would do so, they’d wind up with increased adoption rates (i.e. more sales).

This is why I formed my company to address not only BI Consulting, but also Training and Mentoring. In hopes of helping organizations get the horse before the cart when it comes to success with BI.

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