There has been some debate as of late around the progress and relevance of agile business intelligence (http://agileintelligence.blogspot.com/, http://exceptionalgeeks.com/bi-curious/2009/10/22/bi-release-management/, http://www.analyticbridge.com/profiles/blogs/agile-business-intelligence, http://herdingcats.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/10/an-strawman-argument-for-agile-project-management.html, among others).

What makes the debate interesting to me is more in the weeds and less in the ether. Particularly as it applies to smaller organizations and not massive roll-outs is this: Can you start with nothing on Monday, and show someone something USEFUL on Wednesday? (I am not even giving you until Friday.)

If the answer is, “Well, it depends,” then forget it. Take a different approach.

I am not advocating abandoning all planning in favor or piling on a list of reports to be run together. Rather, I would say that you need to start VERY small, VERY targeted, and show value immediately.

Monday:

Find your most important stakeholder. Sit her down, and ask about decisions she makes, whether tactical, operational, strategic, whatever. Fill a whiteboard digging into the decisions she makes. For each decision, try to understand what information she uses to make that decision, and what the availability of that data is.

If you’re any good at this (perhaps I should say “once you’re any good at this”), you’ll find a really important decision that requires data that “has to be somewhere” but that she doesn’t use currently. Perhaps she buys cases of wine for her restaurant every couple weeks based on a walk-through of the cellar, and she eyeballs it and just fills the shelf on gut. Fine.

Tuesday:

Spend Tuesday pulling down data out of the available systems. If there’s an inventory system, great. If there’s POS data (there is always something), pull it down and dig through it. Use Excel. Use SQL Server. Use R. Beat that data up using whatever you’re most comfortable with. Build out a picture of historical wine sales volume by day/week/month and by varietal and by region and by distributor and by whatever information is available. Use all dimensions. Compile all that information all morning, and book time with your stakeholder mid-afternoon to discuss. Yes, it is possible—just get it done.

When you get that session, talk through all the data with her. Excel and a projector—keep asking, “What in this would help you make that decision better?” Key is to use her expertise and yours. Perhaps you know a little (or googled around about) economic order quantity and can apply a simple formula to generate a re-order quantity report by SKU. Perhaps she knows that vendors like to consolidate purchases at certain levels, and you build that adjustment into your metrics. Land on something absolutely useful, absolutely simple. When she says, “yeah, but it doesn’t work that way,” do NOT ignore her. Ask why. Drill. Incorporate some complexity, and ask her about how the process could change. That is what whiteboards are made for.

Wednesday:

Build out the report. Structure the data so that your report can pull it quickly, easily, and correctly. I still prefer the ROLAP model, but I am not precious, the report is. Schedule that report into her inbox for the morning when she re-orders, and then build out the simplest, most straightforward ETL package to pull JUST the data needed for that report. Leverage a bus model so you can expand later, but keep it simple.

You did it right if she actually uses that report or metric to do her job better, faster, and smarter than before that report existed. If she does, you win. If not, you need to get better at this.

Why it matters:

It is easy to lose sight of the real goal when pulling together reports, metrics, dashboards, and everything else. It is most often the business stakeholder who just wants to see a massive, sexy, real-time dashboard, but trophy BI projects don’t make businesses smarter. Focus on decision points and information that make those decisions smarter, and build those out first. It is a LOT slower to build out your BI infrastructure one report at a time, but if your first 5 reports are the 5 most impactful reports you ever build, it won’t matter. 100 reports that no one uses to make decisions are a waste of time and money.

So Agile BI? You bet. It would be rude not to.

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