Why Business Intelligence is Often Stupid

Business intelligence (or BI) has been all the rage for the last couple of years. It is a central topic in ASAE’s Tech conference later this month, with many sessions focused on how to extract data from your systems and present them in shiny dashboard interfaces. There is a problem though:

Many business intelligence tools are plain stupid.

All the dials, speedometers, bar graphs, and status icons in the world won’t help you if you do not first ground your efforts in what data you need to make sound decision in pursuit of your business outcomes. A lot of vendors and consultants out there gloss over these critical issues in pursuit of the BI sale.

Take dashboards, for example. The concept is that a single screen will give you all the data you need to make quick decisions, just like you can with a car dashboard. The problem is, most businesses and organizations don’t have to make a decision in a split second like you do when driving an automobile. Auto dashboards are optimized to give the driver critical feedback in a glance lasting less than a second.

When is the last time you had to make a decision of major import to the organization from your desk in less than a second? It just doesn’t happen.

Yet, a lot of business intelligence dashboard tools look just like the dashboard of a car. It is a literal interpretation that ruins a somewhat valuable idea.

So, what to do?

You have to start with the objectives you are trying to achieve. What process are you putting into place to achieve an objective? What are the measurable steps within that process? What data sources do you need to tap into to generate those measures? How will you use that data to make decisions?

Once you have answered all those questions you should be able to identify what measures you should monitor and how often. If one or more of them matter on a daily basis, a dashboard interface might make a lot of sense for presentation of the data. If not, a simple report will probably meet your needs and save you the time, effort and expense of developing a dashboard you don’t need.

That is being intelligent about your business data.

By the way, I will be presenting a session with Wes Trochlil at the ASAE Technology Conference titled: “Getting Intelligent About Business Intelligence: Finding the Value Behind the Hype.” If you only go to one BI session, I suggest you make it ours.

Should You Add Live Chat to Your Web Site?

A friend asked me recently about adding live chat to their business web site. This is the kind of functionality where site visitors can click a button to initiate a chat session with a company representative. Some of these will even pop-up a dialogue box on their own, asking the visitor if they need assistance from a live person. I’m sure most of you have encountered this kind of thing somewhere before.

Here is the five second test for whether you should consider adding live chat to your site:

Does your organization already have a call center fielding questions and/or orders from your customers?

If yes: you should consider live web-based chat as another medium for their efforts.

If no: you most likely won’t benefit from live chat.

Live chat is not going to help you much if you don’t already have a large force of people engaging one-on-one with your customers. The reason is that if you don’t already have those kind of staff, you most likely aren’t pursuing outcomes that live chat support can serve well. And you most certainly don’t have the human resources to do it well.

DRM is Hazardous to Your Revenue

I answered a question yesterday about tools for applying digital rights management (DRM) to electronic products such as PDFs and digital video files.

The short answer is that you do not need to act like an big media executive in how you offer digital products. Applying DRM to your electronic publication products is counter productive in most cases. I offer a few more thoughts on this in the short slide presentation below.

As an aside: I’ve been having fun with slideshare.net this past week, as you may have noticed. The key to using this as a medium for sharing your ideas is to design for it. Slides from my presentations are optimized to support my talk. Slides on slideshare need to stand on their own.

Update: This set of slides is currently featured on the Slideshare.net home page. Nobody can resist a good DRM smackdown.

Shopping Online at Work

I am quoted rather extensively in a West HR Advisor feature article on whether and how to monitor employees shopping online at work.

This article won’t be available online for long, so check it out now if you are interested. Funny how the president of an internet usage monitoring system recommends tracking both time spent online and content viewed by your employees. Gee, why would he say that?

My rebuttal:

Given the pros and cons of time-based monitoring, employers should put more effort into performance management. “Employees should be evaluated on how well they are achieving the outcomes they are supposed to do for their employer, not how long they spend surfing the web. If someone is meeting or exceeding their goals, who cares how long they spend online at work?” Gammel asks.

I even get the bottom line quote at the end:

“Ultimately, those who want to goof off will find ways to do so even if the web isn’t viable. This is a management and motivation problem, not one of monitoring,” Gammel says.

You have more fundamental problems in your business than online shopping if you have to go Big Brother on a regular basis. Installing nanny software may seem easier in the short run but it is not going to help improve the value of your employees’ contributions to the organization.

Here is an idea: if you know your employees are going to be shopping online during the day anyway, why not make it a benefit?

Announce that each employee is encouraged to spend up to 2 hours shopping online for the holidays. Tell them they have to work out coverage and scheduling with their bosses but that you want to recognize all they do for you year round by making their shopping a bit easier. You gain good will and scheduling efficiency while losing nothing that wasn’t going to happen anyway.

When Data Crunches You

My most recent post on the We Have Always Done It That Way blog appears to have made a direct hit on the pitfalls of being too data-oriented: When Data Crunches You. Several comments so far and counting.

My co-authors and I are working on a new edition of the book, which was originally developed via collaboration on the blog. The current edition is available from both Lulu and Amazon if you haven’t read it yet.

How would you rate your experience with our coat hangers?

I just got an e-mail survey from Starwood Hotels, who wanted to know, in excruciating detail, about my experience at the Annapolis Sheraton two weeks ago.

The survey had over 60 questions. Sixty! I skipped most of them. The only feedback I wanted to give was that the A/C was out in the entire building except for the guest rooms and that the elevator almost stalled out on the way up to my floor. You know, big important items.

Instead, this survey asked 10-point likert scale questions on every possible facet of the room and hotel. They may as well have asked about the coat hangers too. This survey probably has a response rate of less than 1 percent and would generate data only from their guests who are willing to invest an hour filling it out. These people are probably not their desired customers.

Paging Fred Reichheld

My Wikipedia Contribution Lives On

Deane at Gadgetopia recently discovered the Unconference entry on Wikipedia. This is a topic I created on Wikipedia back in November 2005. It caused a bit of a kerfluffle with Dave Winer at the time, who slammed me indirectly for getting the attribution on the term wrong.

Since I created the entry, it has been edited hundreds of times (only a few by me) and is a nice comprehensive, yet concise, article now. This is one of the reasons why I love the Internet and the Web.

Four Levels of Engagement in the Blogosphere

I used this device in a presentation last week to frame how you can have different levels of participation in the online world these days. The four levels are:

  • 0: Unengaged
  • 1: Listening
  • 2: Commenting and Connecting
  • 3: Fully Engaged

Let’s tackle them one by one.

0: Unengaged

This one might also be called “Blogowhat?” You aren’t listening to what people are saying online and have no idea what people are saying about your company, ideas, products, employees, you name it. You are not plugged into the online conversation.

1: Listening

At this level, you are regularly reading key blogs in your field or industry. You have subscribed to relevant keyword alerts on Google and Technorati. You search Wikipedia for articles that are relevant to your issues and analyze how well they do or do not represent them. You share what you hear and learn throughout your company so that others are more aware of what is going on. This is still largely passive but at least you are following along.

2: Commenting and Connecting

This level includes all of 1 plus actively commenting on relevant blog posts, adding comments to a Wikipedia discussion page, contacting bloggers directly to share your side of the story, etc. It also includes making connections with groups and individuals using social networking tools, such as LinkedIn, Facebook or MySpace. You are going beyond listening by reaching out to those who are leading the online conversation.

3: Fully Engaged

Finally, you are publishing your own blog, podcast, vidcast, etc., putting out your own story. You link to others talking about issues you care about, giving your perspective. You have a full presence in the online conversation.

Moving from 0 to 1 is a huge leap and requires learning a lot of skills and knowledge about the online world. Moving from 1 to 2 is much easier to do, although developing an effective tone for interaction may take some experimentation. Finally, moving to 3 is a bit of a leap but should be pretty smooth if you have been commenting actively for a while first.

What do you think?

Update: Added Connecting to level two. Thanks to Kathryn Lagden for the suggestion in the comments!


James Robertson asks:

The time is right for us to stop focusing inwards on the management of the “intranet as website”, and to ask: what are we going to deliver to the organisation in the next six months?

Good question. A better question: What does the organization need to deliver in the next six months and how can the intranet be aligned to support those efforts?

Intranets will always be viewed as a commodity (low value) when all they focus on is the processing of mundane tasks. There is huge opportunity for your intranet to help make a breakthrough in achieving your organizational goals. It will only happen when intranet managers, consultants and advisors focus on achieving the goals of the organization first and foremost.

I guarantee that you will get more resources and attention if your intranet makes tangible contributions to achieving your organization’s business goals. Policies and time sheet applications will not impress senior executives.

Why Webmaster is Outdated as a Job Title

I posted several days ago that I thought that ‘Webmaster’ is an outdated job title. I didn’t explain why then but I’ll take a stab at it now.

Webmaster came about in the early days as an administrative contact for a web site. It would be the person who answers webmaster@yoursite.com and made sure the server was running, updated pages, added new ones, etc. One person did it all because the domain of knowledge to create all you needed on a site was not too huge back then. The potential return on investment for a good site was also much lower back then for most organizations.

As the Web matured, the roles needed for a successful site exploded: graphic design, markup, programming, content authoring and editing, information architecture, marketing and others. Each of those roles became more complex as more tools and techniques became available and users became more sophisticated in their use of the Web. The potential return for an excellent site exploded, justifying investment in more people with specialized skills and knowledge.

Except for the smallest of operations and the most exceptional of people, It is almost impossible to find someone who can do all these things competently at the same time. But organizations still try to create “do it all” jobs on the cheap. Here’s a tip: people who are competent in all those disciplines are highly valuable in today’s market and they are savvy to impossible jobs. You aren’t going to get them.

Running a web site today is a team effort, even if you have just a single person in house managing your site. They most likely work with outside talent and resources to design your site, keep it up and running, add features and other tasks. Given that, the title for a one person shop position should probably be something along the lines of Manager, Director or Producer.

Keep in mind the two purposes of a job title: attract qualified candidates when you are hiring and communicate internally to your organization what the person does. If you post a job with the title ‘Webmaster’ these days you are simply asking for amateurs to apply and seasoned professionals to ignore you.