The Pain, the Gain, and the Plan for Modern BI
I’ve recently been writing about considerations for successful Power BI deployment, and it has become a 2-part blog. In Part 1, the focus is on the external environment and its impact on both organizations and individuals that may be considering the adoption of Power BI as a modern business intelligence tool. In Part 2, we’ll turn the view inward – recognizing the pains presented when a modern BI tool is missing, reviewing the benefits available with success, and then reviewing the various stakeholders and the key considerations that need to be addressed in order to realize the full potential of a Power BI deployment.
Recognizing the Opportunity
Oftentimes it can be as useful to look at the risks or downsides of not taking an action as it can be to consider the potential promise, especially when determining the priority and return on investment of a given initiative. In Part 1, I discussed some external factors that may guide organizations (and individuals) to adopt and embrace the data and analytics capabilities of modern business intelligence, but let’s look at three sources of pain or categories of risk that can be apparent when an organization lacks a modern business intelligence platform.
The video below covers both Part 1 and Part 2 of this topic. The portion that aligns with this post begins at 15:38.
The top-down risk is characterized by a lack of vision & strategic alignment between enterprise services - especially between data management, business intelligence, and artificial intelligence. This can result in a variety of challenges, including multiple technology stacks with increased demand for custom integrations, out-of-sync progress as new BI and AI tools lack data, or as data availability outpaces the demand across individuals or teams. Siloed solutions may be common, with specialists sourcing their own specialized tools, and business units making SaaS purchases that do not line up well with the enterprise architects’ vision for tool deployment.
The mostly technical risk comes from deficient tooling – lack of scalability, uniformity, or agility to adapt to new data sources or use cases. We may also see outdated tools being stretched to satisfy newer requests, resulting in longer development cycles and an over-tasked report development team, especially in organizations with an expanded demand for data but lacking the tools and/or governance to enable proper self-service. Some tools do not adapt well to the variety of data sources presented, including the ability to hit various cloud repositories and API calls in order to gain access to critical data for analysis. The myriad of challenges created in these scenarios could be the topic of several additional blog posts, but a common trait when tools are lacking is the proliferation of Excel; even when various reports or systems provide access to data and reports, analysts and advanced users are focused on being able to get the data extracts into Excel to satisfy requirements not provided for in the existing reporting solution.
And finally, the bottom-up risk of disengaged users! This piggybacks on the preoccupation with Excel mentioned above and can arise due to complexity/heterogeneity of tools, outdated interfaces, and a general lack of collaborative features. Disengagement can be exacerbated in a primarily WFH environment where organizations may no longer rely on getting everyone into a war-room for collaboration or stroll over to their go-to allies in IT to provide access to data or reports. In this scenario, tools that deliver individual agency and automated processes are necessary to be successful.
Now if any of the previous sections were reminiscent of pains or problems you’ve experienced within your organization in recent memory, take heart! These and more challenges can be overcome and the benefits of successful deployment can dramatically improve the work experience for the vast majority of workers! Before we get into describing the impact and value of successful Power BI deployment, I do want to make one thing clear: the very best technology in the world can fall flat if it is not used and trusted by an engaged user base. Some of these outcomes describe the benefit to the right processes as well as the right technologies – and work best when they are enacted in concert. So here we go:
Engaged Users: enjoy a seamless experience when accessing both managed and ad-hoc data, with a consistent end-user experience that promotes trust and familiarity. Empower various groups to collaborate and socialize the usage of data and analytics to processes and workloads outside of IT or reporting.
Agility & Innovation: Respond rapidly to new analytics demands with robust self-service and ad-hoc capabilities that compliment enterprise managed process. Encourage experimentation and augmented analytics with integrated AI and Machine Learning capabilities. Bring agency and opportunity to improve processes and elevate organizational intelligence about all aspects of the business.
Business Productivity: Single tool & support for both enterprise and self-service reporting tools with quick, intuitive development process for data & report professionals and simplified hand-off from business analysts to professionals to enable governance where needed. Full support of delivery mediums gets the right data and analytics capability to the right audience, regardless of method of access or sophistication.
Scalability & Reliability: Develop with confidence in the reliability and security of the industry leading tool that is fully supported by a complement of enterprise tools for data management and AI development. Roll out the appropriate levels of governance to maintain accuracy and confidence while empowering innovation to expand into new data domains or technical capabilities.
Now some of that sounds like a commercial for Microsoft Power BI, and it’s a great tool certainly. But the reality is that a modern business intelligence tool should provide for all those benefits when successfully deployed and coupled with the right process-level support to deliver digital transformation. There are some great individual analytics tools out there, but few if any can compete with the big-picture, holistically-minded deployment approach outlined here. Gartner awards Microsoft as the runaway winner in both the ability to execute as well as the completeness of vision, and those measurements are critically important when you get out of contrived bake-off comparisons and into real-world deployments!
Planning for Success
The vision of a data-centric organization is appealing, and consensus has shown it is a top priority for organizations. However, the vast majority of organizations struggle to achieve the benefits, in some cases, even after paying the large price tags associated with the tools and technology of the trade. So how do we avoid the pitfalls? How can we chart a course towards success? The answer is anything but simple, and there is no one-size-fits-all, but there are some clear critical areas of focus, and we’ll review with more detail below.
Who are we doing this for? It’s a simple question, but it’s also a bit of a trick question. There are multiple key audiences and stakeholders when building organization capabilities, deploying wide-spread tools, and taking aim at digital transformation. Let’s consider a few key audiences and their primary concerns and needs when deploying Power BI.
Business Leadership & Enterprise Architects: Leadership & Technology Landscape Alignment.
Admittedly, this might be an odd grouping here, but bear with me. The right level of sponsorship and vision is critical for any digital transformation initiative and the push for such change, the vision that inspires the work, must come from the right level to propel the organization over the hurdles and bring all the other stakeholders together. The EA teams should be concerned with achieving the vision of the executive leadership in a managed and intentional way, and this is where alignment with other business and technology leaders needs to come together. Finance and accounting teams need to get on the same page as the BI managers, who themselves need to be working in parallel with data platform leadership. And a properly functioning modern data platform touches every internal system as well as external sources of data from all areas of the business, so to say this can be a diverse and very busy set of stakeholders is an understatement! The executive sponsor must share the vision that rallies the disparate stakeholders and those impacted to move in the same direction and appreciate the value of the transformation. The EA function must help align the data strategy with BI and reporting while ensuring that every department and the embedded analysts are provided for.
Data & Analytics Leadership: Technical Deployment & Management.
The technology leaders responsible for obtaining and deploying various tools and platforms are an obvious inclusion – but let’s point out that many BI tools over the last 5 years have made it their focus to promote themselves as “self-service” tools, and heavily down-played the importance of these IT leaders. I have long maintained that this tends to be folly in almost every organization, promoted by software vendors to close a quick sale with a business stakeholder who may be frustrated at the speed (or lack thereof) of their supporting IT department. That being said, I do believe that the frustration that led to the appeal is very real, and any modern solution must take into account the balance between agility and governance, and establish guidelines for ownership of reporting and analytics that empower both efficient managed reporting as well as agile and innovative analytics from both technical and non-technical audiences. This is supported by a need to ensure robust security and governance processes and controls are in place as appropriate, and that the platform itself can be monitored and managed to provide consistent performance and functionality.
BI Practitioners and Analysts: Solutions & Capability Enablement.
Last but certainly not least are the actual users of the BI tool! As the consumers of data, this represents the largest audience, and the most diverse – spanning levels of professional report developers and BI practitioners along with business analysts, budding data scientists, and managers and workers from almost every aspect of the business. These audiences need access to training and support resources. They benefit from showcase examples that offer up patterns and best practices to follow as new assets are built. Training should be appropriately tailored along a tiered path of depth and expertise so as not to overwhelm the lightweight users while also provide the enablement resources for innovation and experimentation from more advanced users. Professional report developers need access to a proper tool set for managed assets, performance management, and scalability and maturity options that help ensure the tool set can grow with the data volume and complexity of the use cases.
With these primary audiences in mind, and their respective wants and needs as participants in the organizational change towards becoming a data-driven organization, we can group the principal activities and areas of responsibility that enable success. At BlueGranite, our experiences with hundreds of clients (we've been Power BI fans for awhile... seriously), in various states of Power BI use, have highlighted some key pillars to support deployment and adoption. These pillars are grouped by domain, and the associated primary audience that they help address, and collectively help provide a holistic perspective to deploying Power BI and maximizing the benefit!
It is important to highlight that each of these pillars themselves contain multiple activities and considerations. While the audiences and their objectives may be vastly different, with well north of 100 different client engagements across various aspects of Power BI deployment, we made an effort to capture the types of activities we were being asked to do, and the key considerations that our team of experts identified that enabled a path towards successful deployment and adoption. We invested additional time to work through these considerations in light of each pillar and identifying additional unmet or unasked needs that organizations can expect to encounter while tailoring a deployment plan for their own organization and environment.
We also noticed an unintended side effect: simply by grouping these pillars, we’ve allowed collaboration among our own team to develop their own expertise within the domains and considerations that they have the most experience in or feel most passionate about!
That last images admittedly covers a lot of ground and it’s probably too small to read through in detail, but it’s important to note that very few organizations need to consider every single item on those lists. Analysis paralysis is real, and it can be deadly to any initiative intended to spur innovation to over-complicate the details of governance, monitoring, strategy planning in general.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”
Taking a page from General Dwight D Eisenhower, we can move forward in an agile fashion knowing that each consideration we choose to undertake has been worked out in a broader framework that will let us address additional challenges and considerations as the need arises! And we can certainly benefit from retrospection on the rough plan that we have seen lead to success for multiple medium sized deployments (roughly 250 – 1,500 Power BI users).
Here we can see 4 key topics, and a rough timeline in how they can be successfully addressed. This is not comprehensive, and depending on the deployment approach, may be followed by additional activities to scale various elements to additional business units. But here’s what remains consistent:
- Strategic Planning – this does not require a massive project charter or Gantt chart detailing every single step along the way, but we also do not want to proceed blindly. Getting the environment set up right, aligning to enterprise data management functions, and understanding the likely plans for governance and ownership will all help ensure that the early solutions and adopters do not get painted into a corner, or adopt early habits that veer too far from the best practices that the organization seeks to establish.
- Adoption Pilot(s) – although Power BI is easy to get into and use, it also can be tremendously sophisticated. Getting some quick wins that solve high-visibility and high-value analytics problems while also helping establish patterns, palettes, and practices for others to model against can be critical! This also ensures that efforts in the next section have content immediately to help manage, to prevent the perception gap between starting an adoption and seeing the benefits!
- Enterprise Deployment – Identifying and implementing the supporting infrastructure and controls necessary for at least the first few months of expected usage is critical. No one likes to stabilize and build out the right support mechanisms once the plane is in-flight – it’s always best to address them before things get off the ground! At a minimum, we know that decisions around Premium and Gateways are critical, and a clear understanding of security needs and data movement strategies will pay-off later. In addition, we believe that monitoring, specifically user & adoption monitoring, should not be overlooked. Understanding the impact of the deployment, tracking adoption metrics, and helping with targeted support and training are all necessary to ensure we end up achieving the goals of the initiative.
- Support & Training – providing the right support for the various levels of users – in terms of training and other resources – is straight forward. But there are some ways to improve the efficacy of these efforts! Making sure that training is modular and accessible is key – this helps various users engage with the resources they need without having to invest extra time in features they may not be utilizing yet. In addition, being deliberate with the groups that engage in structured training – paying attention to their department and level of sophistication – can help ensure that such sessions are as productive as possible while also investing in advanced practitioners who can advocate and assist others on each team. Finally, monitoring the adoption of the platform as well as specific assets (datasets or reports) can help provide visibility into where additional training or support is necessary while highlighting the benefits enjoyed by those who are taking advantage of Power BI!
So if you've made it this far with me, let me recap (and thanks for hanging in there!). The potential of digital transformation exists across many domains, but the core concept remains the same: letting technology transform our business processes and capabilities to operate better in a wide range of current and future scenarios. When external events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic recession exert tremendous pressure upon operating 'as usual', we have an opportunity to lean in to the efficiency gains available from becoming a data-driven organization. One foundational opportunity to do just that is to look at deploying and adopting Microsoft's Power BI platform as an enterprise-wide tool, and enabling self-service analytics to become a widespread capability. In pursuing successful adoption of Power BI, there are many stakeholders and considerations to address, and I've taken the time to highlight some of the findings collected across dozens (and dozens!) of Power BI engagements with organizations of varied sizes, industries, and levels of data maturity. At BlueGranite, we're continuously learning and improving our understanding of how to help organizations maximize their investment in Power BI, and we see it as a critical component of successfully harnessing the value of data, and charting a path towards Artificial Intelligence and automation. It is our firm belief that most organizations will need to journey this path in order to survive and thrive in the current volatile economic climate and into the foreseeable future.
Helping organizations deploy and adopt Modern Business Intelligence solutions is core to our vision, and it's an area we are excited to continuously invest in, learn about, and share!