Article: Progressing your BI Strategy – Begin the Crawl

By Sajid Patel

Business Intelligence has been around for quite some time, arguably dating back to the 1960’s under the generalization of Decision Support Systems. While today’s definition may not be consistently used by analysts, vendors or customers; the business value it promises to deliver can be justified through numerous real-life case studies. Even a single, well-orchestrated instance can be enough to achieve a sizable return on investment and then some. Needless to say, finding that one hidden opportunity that can yield significant revenue or reduce the company’s risk exposure can be simply exhilarating. To further the movement, the tools & technologies in this domain have progressed nicely through the years, providing for an ever-increasing set of robust capabilities and broad flexibility. Many of the top tier software companies have solid, integrated offerings and there are a myriad of specialty products to fill the gap for unique capabilities.

So despite a deep history, abundant quantity of success stories and good fundamental technology, why are so many companies still struggling with their implementations of Business Intelligence strategy? While some companies are using Business Intelligence as a strategic, competitive advantage in their lines of business, other companies are struggling just to get started. Others have successfully started down the right path but have stagnated at a certain level of maturity. What allows one organization to achieve success? Why do some organizations fail and simply give up? Through this series of articles, we can discuss how companies can progress their BI strategy, starting with “crawl”, accelerating to “walk” and then ultimately advancing to “run” and beyond. In this article, we can talk about how to reach the “crawl” stage.

* “Crawl”: Assess, Prioritize, Establish, Execute

Let’s suppose your organization is always heads-down busy with day-to-day operations, i.e. processing orders, managing the supply chain, dealing with customer service issues. Either due to a lack of available time, resources, capital or even strategy, business intelligence has not been a priority. When you realize your competition is gaining market share or your financials are stagnating, you finally decide to put some focus on business intelligence as a means of regaining the competitive edge. You’re ready to crawl, but what’s next?

The “crawl” stage is really about understanding where you are in terms of business intelligence maturity and about establishing the right strategy to move forward. The “crawl” stage is never a final goal to reach, but rather a milestone towards the next progressive step. In this stage your focus is on making sound decisions that will create the foundation for your future BI success. There are four primary activities, preferably to be followed in the order presented. Now realize, this will take some time. Negotiations will be required and politics may be involved but with the right resolve, you will reach this milestone.

* Assess: Evaluate where you are today.
Taking an honest-to-goodness, objective assessment of your capabilities is critical to understanding your true gaps and establishing the right means forward. What can your business do with information and more importantly, what your business cannot do? Where is your information and how is it used today? How well can your IT group and/or the BI infrastructure support what the business wants to achieve? What are the technical, functional and organizational roadblocks preventing you from progressing? Dive into as much detail as you can to understand the issues, constraints and risks that are impacting your organization’s ability to achieve value through BI. Assimilate the results to develop clear points that can lead to a charter. For example, some conclusions you could reach are (a) information that users need is not centralized, (b) users have built home-grown reporting systems to address BI gaps, (c) reconciliation process is sub-optimal and error prone, (d) there are some major data quality issues with your current data warehouse, (e) the IT staff skills are insufficient to support BI, etc. This will lead to the recommendations that are necessary architecturally, technically, organizationally and culturally to develop the right BI strategy.

* Prioritize: Inventory and prioritize your business initiatives.
Take an inventory of all of the information-related, strategic business initiatives from each of the key business areas. Sales, marketing or product teams may have initiatives to drive new revenue, while finance or risk groups may have initiatives to contain costs or reduce risk exposure. Bring together those business units and prioritize their initiatives based on the business value the initiatives can deliver. Define the dependencies and the natural sequence of events. Focus on measurable value rather than the loudest or first voice. Although business priorities can change without much notice, take what you currently know and prioritize over a multiyear timeframe. It’s important to gain an organizational consensus on the priority list, and this is exactly when you need a corporate sponsor for your BI strategy to keep the group focused on the common goal.

* Establish: Develop your BI Strategy and set the direction.
Using the assessment on capabilities and having a prioritized list of business initiatives, start to develop your BI strategy. Understand the information that supports each of the initiatives and begin to design the phases to deliver that information. It’s important to distinguish between establishing an “information” layer and developing the “presentation” layer. Business intelligence starts with turning data into information. The availability of “information” is half the battle. The “presentation”, or how the information will be used for business purposes, can advance over time based on a few factors. How the user community adopts the tools will evolve and how their needs for using the information in key business functions will mature. In developing the BI strategy, think about what information should be made available in which timeframe and how it will be used in business processes. Design your BI strategy in manageable, bite-sized but value-focused phases of implementations. For example, the first phase may focus on delivering fixed “management” reports that easily fit into existing business processes for a particular business unit. Phase 2 may transition into delivering more “parameter” driven or ad hoc reporting capabilities or extending the current framework to more business units.

* Execute: Establish your environment, validate the strategy.
Now that you have a BI strategy outlined, start to address your environment. What tools are best suited to support the initiatives? Do I already have tools or do I need to evaluate further? How does BI fit into my existing IT infrastructure and framework? Does the IT organization have the right skills and organization to take on this effort? Establishing the environment does not necessarily mean infusing a huge amount of cash. Often times, you can start with an existing technology as a means of validating the strategy and move into better suited technology once it’s proven and you gain sponsorship. Once you have re-established your technical foundation, start the execution of your BI strategy. Hopefully your BI Strategy is designed to incrementally deliver capabilities. This first execution does not have to be a masterpiece but should be based on sound principles and good decision making.

As you go through these activities, you will likely encounter some challenges and pitfalls. If you are aware of these and ensure you have sufficient reality checks along the way, your chances of success will continue to rise.

“Attempting to boil the ocean”: Fight the temptation to take on too much too fast. Instead, focus on capturing information that you know can be obtained and transformed without too much complexity. Deliver BI capabilities that will peak interest and deliver immediate value to your business. Once you have buy-in and can prove value, you have the wind you need to set sail. There will always be a business reason to push faster but do not skip the fundamentals and think about incremental delivery rather than all at once.

“Doing it alone”: When we talked about assessing capabilities, prioritizing business initiatives and establishing the environment, did you notice we did not specify who takes on this activity? Collaboration between business and the technology teams is critical to moving forward in harmony. The conflicts begin when there is a perception that technology teams do not understand the business requirements and are delivering the wrong solutions. Inversely, if the business doesn’t clearly articulate their plans, IT cannot plan their ability to deliver effectively. Make sure there are strong business and technology partners as part of the team. Corporate sponsorship is critical to keep everyone focused on what’s important for the organization.

“Making it too technical”: A key success factor of this baseline BI environment will be user adoption. Whatever you develop has to deliver on its functional objectives, first and foremost. Try not to introduce too many frills, gadgets, gizmos that will impact usability. Complexity will lead to a longer learning curve and deter adoption. Plus, fancy “techy” stuff may be cool for a while but can get stale fast. Functional capabilities on the other hand will always be a necessity as part of a business process. Encourage the technical team to bring in users throughout the design and development stages. The benefits can range from obtaining early validation of a solution, building enthusiasm, and easing the eventual adoption.

Hopefully part one of this three part series has provided some things to ponder as you’re getting started. Maybe for some it has provided some validation of the process and steps your organization has already followed during the “crawl” stage. For those of you ready to progress to the next stage, stay tuned for the second article in this series which will focus on accelerating your BI strategy from “crawl” to “walk”.

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About the Author

Sajid Patel, Managing Director of Information Management Practice at Emtec
Sajid specializes in data warehouse, data integration and business intelligence architectures. Sajid began his interests in this domain with the introduction of scalable architectures in the early 90’s. Since 1997, Sajid has held leadership positions, either in the capacity of running his own Data Warehouse consulting business to partnering with talented leaders on specialized practices. He currently co-manages the Information Management practice at Emtec and continues to focus on helping customers achieve success with the right solutions in this domain.


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