Recently, I took part in a discussion, where a number of people were debating the need to have a business representative or business-focused Project Manager involved in the design stages of a data warehouse. My own view is that business users should have input at every stage of the development. User buy-in is absolutely critical to the success of a business intelligence project, since they are the ultimate consumers of the information. If they don’t like it, they won’t use it – it’s as simple as that!
Users need to be involved right from the start. They can save you a lot of additional, unforeseen work since they will tell you directly if anything is missing from the warehouse. I came across an example of this, where the report consumers were not involved at all until the training. During training, the users noted with a great deal of disappointment that quite a few of their key criteria were simply missing from the warehouse. This led to discouragement and a loss of user confidence in the system. The project was ultimately leading to failure; since the users could obtain these key criteria outside of the warehouse, they saw no need to use the new warehouse.
My brief was to turn this situation around to ensure successful delivery of the project. The first step in doing so was ensuring that the users all had their say in the content of the data warehouse. Since these omissions had been discovered during the training phase, the project had been at a mature stage of development at that point of time. Thus, there was a considerable amount of re-work at every stage of the project to ensure that the warehouse contained the business users’ requirements to support their decision making processes. Needless to say, if the business users had been involved at the beginning, there would have been no need for the extensive re-work.
When building a data warehouse, it can be tempting to exclude users and to ultimately dictate a solution to them. This is particularly the case where users have never been exposed to a business intelligence solution and have a long journey ahead of them to understand the difference between a data warehouse, and a database. This situation is compounded by the fact that developers are not always the most gregarious people, and may possibly even be naturally disinclined to speak with customers.
I appreciate that it can be difficult to explain complex concepts, such as cubes, to business users. One customer told me that a ‘grey fog of confusion’ descended on his brain whenever he heard the word ‘cube’! However, I have found that using Microsoft BI products have helped business users to really see, understand and use their data have the ‘Aha!’ moment and to. For example, showing business users the contents of a cube in Excel or in the Analysis Services browser supports their learning journey to the ‘Aha!’ moment.
The users’ journey to understanding and confidence can be supported by actively involving them at different stages. One useful way of doing this is to get the user’s input when creating cubes. I achieved this by listing out the possible hierarchies and attributes in an Excel spreadsheet, asking the business team to organise them to reflect their business structures. Since they knew the business well, they did this easily. When they saw the completed cube, it was a real confidence boost for them to see that they had had direct input into the creation of the cube and that it was a correct translation of the data into their business needs. The business users’ confidence levels were increased by the fact that they could interact with the cube in the comfort zone of Excel. Ultimately, involving the customer at all stages directly helped them to accept the system.Getting business users to accept, understand and interact with a business intelligence solution is often one of the hardest parts of a BI project. However, in my experience as a BI practitioner, the Microsoft BI stack of products makes this easier since it is directly aimed at this group of users who will ultimately determine the success – or otherwise – of the Business Intelligence project. What’s the point of delivering a technically perfect solution if nobody will use it or can understand it?