Why aren't business executives more excited to have "information at their fingertips"? Maybe because those fingers have been burnt before . . .
Leaving aside "that will be fixed in the next release"; I think the biggest software lie in the ICT industry is "information at your fingertips". Over the years a plethora of business intelligence solutions have promised to satisfy this very need - query tools, executive information systems, data mining methodologies, online analytical processing (OLAP) and data warehousing - yet the reality is that, after nearly 30 years of trying, organizing and utilizing data is still ranked by Australian CIOs as one of their top ten challenges.
Dashboards and scorecards are the great hopes in this area today. They can give the busy corporate executive an immediate visual representation of how the business is going according to key performance indicators. In the time-poor world of today, such snapshots have great appeal, and in my discussions with CIOs I hear they are increasingly enthused by the potential of this technology.
So when one of the leading software suppliers of dashboard solutions invited me to their user group meeting to observe their latest release in action, I decided to see for myself. As might be expected, the software demonstrated beautifully. A key user of the product explained how the product helped with decision making in the publishing world. There was a constant stream of red, green and amber coloured graphs signifying progress against a set of predefined yardsticks. This presentation was followed by a technical overview from the vendor. Not surprisingly, buzzwords abounded; I learned about the importance of the ETL process, (extract, transfer and load), and the newly-released SDMS functionality, (synchronizing data from multiple sources).
However, the highlight of the session for me was the user panel at the end of the meeting. For all the allure of the dashboard, it seemed the greatest challenge these IT executives faced was getting their business peers to actually use the software. A representative from one prominent financial organization said that although his organization had a licence for over a thousand active users there were really only 50 "heavy" users for the product itself. This lack of executive utilization was a frustration expressed by several other IT executives at the meeting.
Apparently, the real obstacle dashboards face is the need for executives to appreciate that Excel is not a business intelligence tool. Most executives are comfortable with spreadsheets, and they prefer to populate a spreadsheet manually with data drawn from other reports than to take the time to learn a new application. The trouble is that this leads to people making decisions based on data in spreadsheets that isn't current.
In fact, this was such an issue in one large retail organization I know that the CIO started defining the data warehouse to the business as "the single source of truth". He even went as far as to introduce a "certified true" stamp that he affixed to all reports that came from the data warehouse. Such reports were viewed as pre-eminent in all corporate decision making.
I suspect that this executive indifference to exploring the potential of dashboards is payback to the IT industry for all the undelivered promises of the past. Why should someone pressed for time bother to learn a product that may be a dead-end?
Perhaps many of those staff sticking stubbornly to Excel are people who lost time learning failed business intelligence solutions in the past. As most children discover early in their lives, if you're caught lying it takes a long time before anyone will believe you again.
Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager's Survival Guide and ran the InTEP IS executive gatherings in Australia for over 10 years
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