Sunday, May 16, 2010

Data Warehousing: The Agile Method

One of the more insightful sessions I attended at TDWI's 2010 World Conference in Chicago covered the topic of development methodology. In this case, the presenter recommended that we basically forget everything we know about the software development process and consider a new way of doing things.

Listening to what was described during this day long session, I came to realize that the way I had been doing things already had a name: the agile method. In fact, the presenter (Ralph Hughes) had already written a book about it titled "Agile Data Warehousing".

Rather than approaching development as an overly bureaucratic and planned out process, the agile method suggests that we drop the burden of extensive planning and focus on delivering smaller and more frequent deliverables. By following the agile method, we can approach a more ideal solution while providing small and useful pieces each step of the way.

For example, I have been involved in projects previously where the planning process was so painstaking and overbearing that the project never actually got off the ground. Instead of putting our heads down and getting to work, our heads were up in the clouds creating plans and contingencies for mitigating risk should plans not go as intended. Instead, by the agile method, some smaller piece (like a single dashboard or report) is selected for development, and this piece is developed as though the final deadline for the entire project lie just around the corner.

It's an exciting environment to work in, and it puts aside a lot of the fiscal concerns of project costs, as within weeks of kicking off a new project, something of value is delivered and implemented for end users.

If you're interested in learning more, click the image of the cover to order the book from Amazon's website. And for a quick overview of the best practices for agile method development, take a look here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

BI User Adoption

Imagine yourself in the cockpit of a Boeing 747. You are the pilot, and you've got some difficult decisions to make. The plane is running low on fuel, with just enough to make it to your destination and land the plane. You've lost an engine, and you're carrying a fairly heavy load (okay, so you'll have to imagine yourself as a pilot prior to baggage checking fees coming into effect). Your co-pilot is, well, pre-occupied with a young flight attendant and a dry martini.

Having never flown a plane before, you stare down at the instrumentation panel and cluster of gauges in front of you, and you're confused.

This is often how the end users of BI implementations feel when they look down at their screens. While the content on the screen may provide the solutions to all business problems and more, the tools aren't easy to use and they're hard on the eyes.

BI vendors would all have you believing that their software suite provides the perfect solution to this ongoing problem. With all the glitz of glossy marketing materials, they insist that they are providing the best looking and easiest to use software in the business. What they're not telling you is that it's their job to lie...err...I mean sell.

This is one of those problems that money doesn't solve. You can throw tons of capital at your reports and dashboards and bring in every vendor under the BI umbrella, but at the end of the day, you'll still be left with an ugly and useless hunk of trash (exaggeration for emphasis).

In order to address this issue, you'll need some creative resources. Find someone with the ability to place themselves in the shoes of a non-technical computer user and identify the shortfalls of your user interface, yet knowledgable regarding the technical capabilities of the software. Find another person who has an eye for design and knows what will be pleasing to the eye while providing meaningful insights to the end user. BI is not just about data warehousing, coding and report authoring. We need to reconnect with the creative side we were so in touch with as children.

Don't believe it? Take a look at the average kindergarden student using an Apple product. Upon picking it up, they can almost immediately make it work for them and find the information (or iPhone game) that they're after. While they may not be landing airplanes, we can benefit by taking a page or two from their book.

Not sure where to find the latest edition? You may want to start with Stephen Few's "Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Communication of Data".

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Did You Know?

At Cindi Howson's "Cool BI: The Latest Innovations" at TDWI's 2010 Spring Conference in Chicago, the video below was shown during the session break. It's a fascinating look at some of the demographic information that will create new challenges and shift the balance of global power in our lifetimes. Worth noting is the emphasis on the speed at which information and knowledge are expanding and how quickly new skills will become obsolete in the future. It is for this reason that a strong commitment to the advancement of educational attainment will be critical to our future successes.