Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Christmas Rant - Who Needs Data Quality in Marketing?

A few days before Christmas my family received a Christmas card in the mail from the real estate agent who handled the sale of the house we bought about 18 months ago. It read:

"Dear Scott, Louise and family, hope you are enjoying the big house. Thanks again and warm regards...."

No doubt it was part of a campaign to have us keep the agent top of mind next time we choose to sell a house, but a nice touch nonetheless. Or at least it would have been had my wife's name been Louise!

What's more the "big house" reference was odd as we had down-sized when we bought this house in order to get a property closer to the city. Something the agent should have known only too well as it had come up in conversation on a number of occasions.

Whilst I found the use of the wrong name a little amusing and the reference to the size of the house didn't bother me, my wife was less than happy. It's a safe bet that when we do choose to sell this house this agent will indeed be top of mind - as someone we will definitely not be using.

For less emotive reasons, I'd actually arrived at the same conclusion as my wife. When I sell a house I want the agent acting for me to employ numerous tools to ensure the fastest sale for the best possible price. One of the tools I expect him to use is a database of potential purchasers which he or she has compiled and curated over time. Now, if the agent in question is unable to get basic details right (such as the name of a purchaser and the size of houses they have lived in) then what faith can I have that any of the other details he has will be accurate. Chances are that all he has is a list of names and a collections of facts which may or may not be right. the marketing campaign he'll conduct on my property may well be targeted incorrectly, either missing an obvious potential buyer or having me waste funds marketing to those who have no interest in my property.

So, he's lost a potential future client. So what? Does that really matter, he hasn't really lost any money, has he? Well, I think he has. If you consider the standard fee for an agent (where I live at least) is 4.25% of the sale price and my house might sell for around half a million dollars then he'll actually miss out on the chance of around $21,000. What's more, if my wife tells 10 of her friends that number balloons out to close to a quarter of a million dollars. Sure, not all of those would have been in the market to sell, nor might he have been one of their considerations for a listing agent, but the point is that there is indeed a cost to what at first glance seems like an almost irrelevant data quality issue.

You don't need to work in real estate to be subject to cost stemming from data quality problems. I'm sure that something of the same ilk could happen in many industries. So next time you're faced with what seems like a data quality issue too trivial to worry about just remember John* and his lost income.

* Name changed to protect the not so innocent.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Second Most Important Question in the World

There’s a lot to be said for business intelligence practitioners being responsive and being able to deliver to and meet the needs of their clients quickly and much has been written about the benefits of BI teams partnering with their business colleagues in order to provide the best outcomes and value.

But doing so shouldn’t just be interpreted as giving business users everything they ask for as fast as humanly possible. Across my career I’ve found one simple two word question very powerful. That question is: “so what?”

The value of asking "so what" comes partly from asking the “how will you use this data?”, “what decisions will it inform?”  type questions, but it is even more powerful when turned around. Ask the question: “If I didn't have that data available to me - so what?" If the answer is something along the lines of: “I wouldn't know that we had a preventable problem and in 5 minutes there'd be raw sewage running down the main street” then it's worth doing something about. Write that report, enable those analytics – and do it quickly. However, if the answer sounds more like: “I might need that extra piece of information one day”, then perhaps let's wait for one day to come before we spend the effort, time and money.

In today's climate funding and resourcing are not what they once were in BI. There are few open cheque books left and those of us managing the function have to work with other leaders in our organisations to prioritise. Not only does working on low value things demoralise the members of the BI team, it's also an opportunity cost to the organisation. Working on a low value or low impact requests means that something else, something that may have enabled a better decision, led to time saved, a lower cost to serve or a customer prevented from churning was pushed aside and missed.

The “so what?” question is a powerful one. Just be careful how you ask it, and never presume to know the answer or to be able to second-guess your business colleagues!

And, as to the matter of the [first] most important question in the world. Having just spent two weeks travelling long distances on planes and in cars whilst on holiday with my kids I can assure you that the most important question in the world is “ARE WE THERE YET?”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

What To Do When Your Client Wants Sizzle Not Sausage

I love a good dashboard- really I do. So, you'd think I'd be pleased that a trend seems to be emerging that has more business folks becoming aware of dashboards and, by extension wanting to make use of them. But I'm not. Sure, I'm all for the opportunity to provide insight and a better means of managing business operations with an effective dashboard, but the trouble is far too many of the dashboards I've seen built don't do that. Sure, they're flashy, with widgets and gauges galore and often even visually appealing at first glance, but they're simply not designed to give the right sort of insight, or provide that insight in a way that allows them to be used effectively and efficiently. Now that's often not the fault of the person charged with designing the dashboard it may stem all the way back to the client - the person requesting the dashboard.

Unless you have a long standing relationship with your client, excellent rapport and tremendous trust it's unlikely that you'll have carte blanche to determine how they dashboard should look. In the majority of cases they will have come to you with a design already in mind. Chances are that that design will have been influenced by what they've seen elsewhere - be it in other dashboards, or in advertising from dashboard vendors or implementation consulting firms, many of whom seem to promote [just] the eye-catching nature of dashboards, showing off the latest and greatest controls and visual capabilities. And here's the hard pill to swallow, no matter how many of Few's books you've read, no matter how many industry awards you may have won for your prior dashboards, no matter if you have a PhD with a thesis written on visual cues and how people respond to them, your client is still likely to look at your with a mixture of confusion and disappointment if you suggest alternative design and layout options which are too far apart from their own ideas. If you just build and present him or her with what you believe is the better option then 8 or 9 times out of 10 he'll say it's not what he asked for or wants. Push the issue, spouting all of the theory you like, and you'll do little more than back him into a corner. He'll still want the same design, you'll still need to build it, and the company will have an ineffective dashboard - no-one wins in this situation.

So, what's the answer? Why not build prototypes for both - build him his, but also build what you think will work. Give your client what he wants and you may in turn get what you want, either through the chance to explain why you believe you dashboard layout is more effective, or he may just see it for himself and have a eureka moment. At the very least you will have opened the door for a discussion and now be better placed to have a conversation about the things you really need to know - what's the core aim of the dashboard, who will its audience be and what behaviour is it trying to produce, etc.  And, who knows, the same may happen in reverse, having seen your client's option made real you might have a similar moment and realise that it does in fact work more effectively than your own concept. That's not a bad thing, the company will have a usable and useful dashboard and you'll have discovered another design pattern that you can store away to be leveraged later.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Hidden Properties of SAP Business Objects Dashboards

Aka: What to do when the Properties window of SAP Business Objects Dashboards isn't visible.

Having had this happen to me three times now on three separate laptops, and also having spent, and lost, countless hours looking (largely unsuccessfully - until now) for a way to remedy the situation I thought this one deserved a blog post. So here goes. Hopefully the next person who strikes this problem can solve it with a five minute Google rather than a five hour session of window movement and software uninstalls and re-installs.

My problem originally occurred with SAP Business Objects Dashboards 4.0. I'd been happily working with the product for about a year with no problems until one morning I plugged in my laptop and opened up an existing dashboard to find that the Properties window was nowhere to be seen. No matter what I did I couldn't make it visible. I tried everything I could think of:

  • A Google search;
  • An SCN search;
  • Right-clicking an object and selecting Properties;
  • Highlighting an object and using the Alt-Enter keyboard shortcut;
  • Highlighting an object and Selecting View->Properties for the menus;
  • Using keyboard shortcuts to give the Properties window focus and then moving it with the keyboard arrows thinking it may have been hidden off screen or somehow thinking that it was on an extended display on another monitor;
  • Plugging in a second monitor and then toggling which display was primary and which was extended.
All of these were tried (several times) but to no avail. Next I bit the bullet and tried re-installing the software. Several hours later I found that the Properties window still had an extreme case of shyness and wouldn't show up on my screen.

Luckily, not too much later, I was in line for a laptop update so when my laptop arrived with a fresh install of the Dashboards software all was fine once more - the Properties window was no longer hidden..........at least for about three weeks when the problem re-occurred. Faced with this situation I did what any good manager would do and gave the dashboard work to someone else to take care of.

A week or so ago I moved to another new more portable laptop and installed SAP Dashboards 4.1 on it. Hardly daring to look, I opened up my first dashboard, and .............. joy of joys - I had a Properties window once more. Or at least I did until this evening.  It was there when I left work at 6pm, but not there when I logged back on to my laptop at 9pm. Facing a looming deadline to publish some new corporate dashboards and with no more budget to change laptops again I decided to dive into the Registry.   I found the key that sound about right, exported it for safety,  and started flicking through each of the sub-keys looking for anything that sounded like it might be about window positions, toolbar settings or last saved details. After numerous failed attempts to reset values in keys that looked to fit the bill, and urged on by the dulcet tones of Peter Gabriel, I pulled out the sledgehammer and deleted all of the sub keys under the settings key. I figured / hoped that they would be rebuilt next time I opened the Dashboards tool and I'd trigger a reset to factory settings type operation by brute force. With fingers crossed I re-opened Dashboards, and there it was in all it's glory - the Properties window: 

So, should you find yourself unable to make the Properties window show itself fire up Regedit and navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER>Software>SAP Business Objects>Dashboards>Settings>en

From there delete every subkey under en. Don't delete the en subkey as well, as that seems to render Dashboards unable to start. 

I've tried to identify the specific subkey that needs to be deleted, but with no luck. But that doesn't seem to matter as deleting them all fixes the problem and doesn't seem to have any nasty side-effects. 

This works for a Dashboards 4.1 system and I suspect it would also work for Dashboards 4.0 and probably even for earlier Celsius versions too.

If anyone else has experienced this problem and has figured out what triggers it, I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, September 22, 2014

LCMs - Oldies Just Don't Get It!

Here in Australia we have a breakfast bar that goes by the name LCMs. For those of you that don't know them, they're much like the Rice Krispie Squares found in other parts of the world. The marketing folks behind LCMs appealed to the kids market with the tagline: "LCMs - Oldies Just Don't Get It".

Recently I've been dealing with another LCM - the Life Cycle Management component within SAP's Business Objects suite. Strictly speaking, it's now known as Promotion Management, but I'm old school enough to still think of it as LCM.

Now, I'm all for the style of deployment that Promotion Management enables, but recently I've struck an odd error with its use that perplexes me. There's one think about LCM that this oldie doesn't get!

Recently I've had to turn my hand to something that it's been a while since I've done. I've had to play 3rd level support / SysAdmin to a production Business Objects reporting environment and its supporting development and testing tiers. Some new developers had joined a project using these environments to bring in some new WebI reports along with a few tweaks to the Universe. All went well until one of the new folks tried to promote a report between the development and testing tiers. The nature of the data in play means that the two tiers aren't allowed to have a communications path between them so the promotion needed to make use of a BIAR file. When attempting to create the promotion job after importing the BIAR file to the test server the developer was getting an odd, and not particularly graceful error. It read:


Attempting the same task with a user with admin rights was successful and, interestingly, so was undertaking the task when signed in as one of the original developers.

Effectively this seemed to rule out something more basic wrong with Promotion Management on that box. So, to me this looked like a permissions issue at heart. My first instinct was to look to see if the new developers had been granted to access to use Promotion Management. Aha! None of the new folks had access to the Promotion Jobs folder on the test server. Surely that's the problem.

Easily fixed. A quick application of user security and back to the developers to test. No luck - the same error we'd seen earlier persisted. Now I'm no masochist and I'm far to busy to re-invent the wheel, so off I went to ask Google and SCN. Sure enough both came back with a number of hits that described the same error, but none that matched our case or symptoms closely enough for my liking. So, like it or not, there was a bit more digging to be done. Through a process of comparison and elimination I noticed that there was one group membership that the new developers were lacking. Digging some more showed that this membership gave access (Full Control)  to the folder on the test server that the WebI report to be promoted would live in. And sure, enough after adding one of the new developers to this group the Promotion Management error disappeared and he was able to successfully promote via BIAR file.

Problem solved!

However, one puzzling aspect the remains for me is why this particular error was thrown on the creation of the promotion job and not on the execution of the promotion itself. Even more confusing was the fact that when we temporarily allowed a communications path between the the development and test servers the developer was able to successfully directly promote his changes from server to server (i.e. taking out the need for the BIAR file) even before we'd add the group membership.

With luck, if I ever have to solve the same problem again, this blog post will prompt me to remember the solution without the need for the investigations that went along this time. Even better, it may help someone else being confronted and confused by the same error!

Even better again, if you can shed some light on this odd set of behaviour, I'd love to hear from you. If I'm missing the obvious here, please point it out to me. This oldie doesn't mind it if he's able to get this LCM! And I'm sure the marketing folks as Kellogs won't care either!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Desire Paths in Your Data

On the days that I drive to work I have around a one mile walk from my car park to my office. There's one particular spot where I can take a shortcut by going off the paved path and cutting across some open ground. It saves me a minute or so on the way to work. Despite the fact that there is a perfectly good sidewalk built by the local council it's obvious that a lot of people must do the same as me, and opt for the faster route as well, because there's now a clearly worn path across the open ground, established by people choosing this path every day. Urban planners call these desire paths - the paths that people choose to take between two points regardless of other options that may be available to them.

If you look hard enough you'll find desire paths through your data as well. Your business intelligence solution offers many conventional paths (like the sidewalks built by my local council). These are the pre-built reports and other instruments that you present to your users. But I bet many of your users have built desire paths - the tips and tricks they use to get and analyse the information they need to do their everyday jobs. Or perhaps the extra things they have to do, those downloads and manipulations in Excel or the sneaky Access database sitting on a spare PC under someone's desk,  because your BI solution doesn't let them do their jobs or perform the analysis they need in its entirety. Now you could argue that desire paths in a BI solution actually represent a form of self-service BI. However, unless you've engineered things this way then you're probably only kidding yourself. Yes, desire paths are examples of your users finding ways to help themselves, but chances are that it's due to shortcomings, not features, within your BI solution.

Desire paths have a dark side in the natural world - they often result in trampled vegetation, can contribute to erosion and (not being as safe as constructed sidewalks) can also lead to injury for those using them. Similarly, in the IT world they are actually likely to cause harm to the reputation of your BI solution or of your BI team. Just like people in the natural world wandering a direct route desire path, shaking their head(s) and wondering why their local planning authority spent all that money building a meandering sidewalk twice as long as it needed to be, your users may well wonder where all of that IT spend on BI went, especially when they "can do the same thing (but better) in Excel". Perhaps worse still desire paths can cause actual harm to your organisation, be it financial or other type of loss, due to decisions based upon flawed analysis or data as desire paths can lack the checks and balances that come from underlying planning.

Our challenge as practitioners, managers and custodians of our organisations' BI assets is to find these desire paths (and in so doing also to find which of our pre-built paths are no longer as relevant as they could be). Can we build established footpaths where the users' desire paths have been worn in over months and years of usage? It works in the natural world and it can work in the technology world as well. There are stories of park planners in some countries visiting areas after fresh snowfall to get a sense of where those using the area are choosing to walk. I've heard of at least one university which built no structured sidewalks on a new campus until such time as the students established desire paths between buildings, simply choosing to pave these paths one year on.

In today's reality of shrinking budgets we all get busy just keeping our BI environments running and meeting the needs for new reports and analytics, let alone spending time worrying about how we'll deal with the next big (data) thing looming on the horizon. But I'd advocate there may be good value to be had in taking the opportunity to look for and act on desire paths when we can. The trick will be finding, or engineering, those occasions, like those times of fresh snowfall, when the circumstances are right to see the desire paths and incorporate key ones amongst them into your BI solution.

Happy (re)building!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Your BI Project Shouldn’t Be a Lag Activity

There's a school of thought which advocates that Business Intelligence work should lag behind the other pieces of a larger project and that one should never attempt to undertake business intelligence (BI) activities in parallel with the other "core" activities of the project. The line goes something like this: you can't undertake a major project, say the implementation of a new ERP system, and design and implement BI over that system at the same time; the BI components have to happen 6 months or so later, they can't be designed and built as part of the main project because they are dependent on the main project items being in place first. Those espousing this popular line would have us believe that one can't build BI until the system is up and running, there's a good volume of data available and the business users have worked out what reports they really want and need. Anyway, there's no rush - reports and other BI items are only an output after all!

I disagree. Business intelligence items are as much an input as an output. Yes, they draw upon data in the system, but, compliance reports aside, the information they present should be used as part of a decision making process which then causes some course of action to be taken in a larger process. If this isn't the case then I'd argue that the report in question adds no value. It may just as well not be there!

Look at the idea of doing the BI components at a lag behind the main project through another lens. What this is really saying is one of a few things: 

  • We don't need the information we'd get from the reports to base decisions upon;
  •  We’re happy coming up with and using a range of time consuming workarounds;
  • We’ve got a good gut feel for the business. We can get by making guesses for a while; or
  •  We can get by not doing some of the things that we used to do before we put this new system in place. This could be anything from something as simple as not providing team managers with trend reports of absenteeism through to things with much more potential for a financial sting in the tail such as not re-forecasting project budgets after the initial baseline as been set.

Also take some time to think about the resultant behaviors that may arise from not having reporting and analytic capability available early in the life of your new system. People in your business need to make choices and they need information to do so. If they can’t get it from BI, from the right channels, then they’ll find and develop a myriad of workarounds in attempts to continue to do their jobs. Wait too long to bring BI to the party and chances are a good number of those workarounds will persist in various pockets throughout your business. 

So I’d suggest a pause for reflection before rushing to adopt the common [BI] scheduling wisdom. Put it in the above terms, mull over it, have the leaders in your business consider it too and then see if there’s still the same appetite to defer that BI work for six months. Yes, bringing the BI work in to the main project isn’t easy, challenges abound, at times it feels like you’re building on shifting sands but the pain of not doing it may be much worse.