When it comes to implementing and managing a successful BI strategy we have always proclaimed: start small, use the right tools, and involve your team. We know that the best approach is an iterative and flexible approach. When encouraging these BI best practices what we are really doing is advocating for agile business intelligence. To help you implement these processes we have come up with a beginner’s guide on agile business intelligence.
What is Agile Business Intelligence?
The term “agile” was originally conceived in 2011 as a software development methodology. 17 software developers met to discuss lightweight development methods and subsequently produced the following manifesto:
Manifesto for Agile Software Development:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
And like that agile was born. As a software development methodology, agile is a time-boxed, iterative approach to software delivery that builds software incrementally, instead of trying to deliver the entire product at the end. Due to the success of its methodology Agile has successfully migrated beyond its initial scope and is now being used successfully as a project management methodology across numerous industries. With an emphasis on adaptivity over rigidity and collaboration over hierarchy, it’s easy to see why agile is becoming the chosen methodology for so many.
Agile Business Intelligence Methodology
Business intelligence is moving away from the traditional engineering model: analysis, design, construction, testing and implementation. In the traditional model communication between developers and business users is not a priority. Also, developers are more focused on the data and technology than answering the more important questions:
- “What business questions do we want to answer with the available data in order to support the decision-making process?”
- “What do our users actually need?”
Through Agile adoption, organizations are seeing a quicker return on their BI investments and are able to quickly adapt to changing business needs. Below is a basic Agile framework in regards to BI implementation and management. You may find different versions of this to adopt but the underlying methodology is the same.
This is the stage where you start to develop a loose BI vision. Agile best practice is light documentation: you don’t have to heavily map this out. A whiteboard meeting will suffice.
The inception stage is the critical initiation stage. This is when you first implement active stakeholder participation. You also:
- Train project stakeholders in Agile fundamentals
- Determine BI funding and support
- Identify key business requirements and needs. This includes understanding the business questions to be answered through the BI system
- Discover the available data sources
- Understand the expected information delivery avenues: reports, dashboards, ad hoc reporting, etc.
- Then prioritize key business requirements and needs with time and budget constraints in mind. An effective prioritization technique is to write user stories for each business question identified. Then use a frequency vs. difficulty quadrant to prioritize them. The top right quadrant includes the business questions that are most frequently asked and are the most difficult to answer with existing data. These stories can be considered as high priority. The bottom right corner of least difficult and most requested might be some good low hanging fruit as well!
- During this stage you are also researching and vetting which business intelligence software to use. You need to determine if you are going with an on-premise or cloud hosted strategy. Then, you need to choose AND set-up the right BI system for your organization!
3. Construction Iterations
During construction you are delivering a working system that meets the evolving needs of stakeholders. You will continually cycle through this stage to stage 4 at set increments, usually 1-3 weeks long. Eventually after stages 3 and 4 are done you move to stage 5 (production). During construction, you:
- Actively involve key stakeholders once again
- Collaboratively develop reports
- Utilize the “just in time” (JIT) modeling: identify an issue that needs resolving, grab a few co-workers and explore the issue, and then everyone continues as before. This is also known as model storming.
- Test BI in small internal group
4. Transition (aka Release or End Game)
During this stage you release the previous construction iteration into production. You then return to iteration and then return to transition again to release those changes to production. During transition, you:
- Involve key stakeholders (yes still!)
- Finalize testing
- Finalize documentation, where necessary
- Pilot release to small subgroup
- Train end users
- Train production staff
- Deploy into production
Production is where you operate and support everything that has come out of the construction and transition iterations into production. During this stage, you:
- Operate and support the system, dashboards, and reports
- Identify defects and enhancements. Any of these changes must start at the construction stage and work their way to production.
Top Tips for Agile BI
Now that you have the overall basic framework, here are some top Agile BI tips to keep in mind.
1. Active stakeholder engagement
It is so important we are stating it again. Stakeholder involvement is critical throughout every stage of your BI project. In Agile, stakeholders and product owners experience team progress at regular intervals throughout the process, and increased stakeholder input means better overall business value.
2. Embrace an evolutionary approach
It is a given: requirements, or at least your understanding of them, will change throughout the lifecycle of your project for a variety of reasons. To best develop a solution that meets stakeholder needs you have to take an evolutionary (iterative and incremental) approach to development. Envision the requirements and architecture at a high-level to start, but model storm the details just in time (JIT).
3. Document only when necessary
This tip should be a favorite. Where traditional methods require a great deal of time in planning and writing documentation, Agile relies on daily scrums and face-to-face interactions for team communication. By minimizing documentation, teams are able to respond quickly to project obstacles and remove redundancies.
4. Accept change
A changed requirement late in the lifecycle is a competitive advantage if you can act on it. Instead of adopting strict change management processes, adopt an Agile approach to change management. With the Agile methodology, stakeholders can easily change their minds as the progress progresses. This is essential in BI and for effective organizations!
5. Test throughout the lifecycle
Remember Agile business intelligence is a continual process and not a one time implementation. Data changes. Organizations change. You will need to continually return to your business dashboards to make sure that they are working, the data is accurate and they are still answering the right questions in the most effective way.
6. Choose the right BI Software
Don’t go through all this effort to be Agile and then use a business intelligence platform that is stuck in traditional methods. Make sure your BI software:
- Supports quick iterations: iterations will take longer if your tool is cumbersome, hard to use, or does not work well together with other systems and data sources
- Makes basic features easy to use: self-service BI tools allow even not so technically-savvy end-users to participate in all stages
- Facilitates easily delivery to a large audience: valuable feedback will be lost if the software restricts the amount of end-users that can provide feedback and engage in the process. You want an organization-wide buy-in of your business intelligence strategy. To this end, everyone that should have access must get access.
- Support collaboration: to foster active stakeholder participation the tool must make collaboration between these users easy.
- Allows you to easily publish reports: the whole point of Agile is to get the product out there. Find a tool that allows you to rapidly deploy new dashboards and reports. Just make sure you can easily make changes to them moving forward.
Use An Agile Strategy to Get your Business Intelligence Off the Ground…
….and keep it relevant and effective.
Agile analytics embrace change, viewing it not as an obstacle but a competitive advantage. The result is more flexible and more effective BI that is situated for success in a continuously evolving industry. Use this beginner’s guide to implement agile business intelligence at your organization and reap the benefits!