As a business intelligence consultant, I often encounter the situation described in this month’s T-SQL Tuesday, hosted by Steve Jones ( Blog | Twitter) – “What the Business Says Is Not What the Business Wants.” Steve posed the question, “What issues have you had in interacting with the business to get your job done?”
My profession requires me to have one foot firmly planted in the technology world and the other foot planted in the business world. I learned long ago that the business never says exactly what the business wants because the business doesn’t have the words to describe what the business wants accurately enough for IT. Not only do technological-savvy barriers exist, but there are also linguistic barriers between the two worlds. So how do I cope?
The adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" is particularly helpful when I’m called in to help design a new business intelligence solution. Many of my students in BI classes have heard me explain ("rant") about left-to-right versus right-to-left design. To understand what I mean about these two design options, let’s start with a picture:
When we design a business intelligence solution that includes some sort of traditional data warehouse or data mart design, we typically place the data sources on the left, the new solution in the middle, and the users on the right. When I’ve been called in to help course-correct a failing BI project, I often find that IT has taken a left-to-right approach. They look at the data sources, decide how to model the BI solution as a _______ (fill in the blank with data warehouse, data mart, cube, etc.), and then build the new data structures and supporting infrastructure. (Sometimes, they actually do this without ever having talked to the business first.) Then, when they show what they’ve built to the business, the business says that is not what we want. Uh-oh.
I prefer to take a right-to-left approach. Preferably at the beginning of a project. But even if the project starts left-to-right, I’ll do my best to swing it around so that we’re back to a right-to-left approach. (When circumstances are beyond my control, I carry on, but it’s a painful project for everyone – not because of me, but because the approach just doesn’t get to what the business wants in the most effective way.) By using a right to left approach, I try to understand what it is the business is trying to accomplish. I do this by having them explain reports to me, and explaining the decision-making process that relates to these reports. Sometimes I have them explain to me their business processes, or better yet show me their business processes in action because I need pictures, too. I (unofficially) call this part of the project "getting inside the business’s head." This is starting at the right side of the diagram above.
My next step is to start moving leftward. I do this by preparing some type of prototype. Depending on the nature of the project, this might mean that I simply mock up some data in a relational database and build a prototype report in Reporting Services. If I’m lucky, I might be able to use real data in a relational database. I’ll either use a subset of the data in the prototype report by creating a prototype database to hold the sample data, or select data directly from the source. It all depends on how much data there is, how complex the queries are, and how fast I need to get the prototype completed.
If the solution will include Analysis Services, then I’ll build a prototype cube. Analysis Services makes it incredibly easy to prototype. You can sit down with the business, show them the prototype, and have a meaningful conversation about what the BI solution should look like. I know I’ve done a good job on the prototype when I get knocked out of my chair so that the business user can explore the solution further independently. (That’s really happened to me!) We can talk about dimensions, hierarchies, levels, members, measures, and so on with something tangible to look at and without using those terms. It’s not helpful to use sample data like Adventure Works or to use BI terms that they don’t really understand. But when I show them their data using the BI technology and talk to them in their language, then they truly have a picture worth a thousand words. From that, we can fine tune the prototype to move it closer to what they want. They have a better idea of what they’re getting, and I have a better idea of what to build.
So right to left design is not truly moving from the right to the left. But it starts from the right and moves towards the middle, and once I know what the middle needs to look like, I can then build from the left to meet in the middle. And that’s how I get past what the business says to what the business wants.