In which Jill advocates collaboration–within and outside of business intelligence.
My client Janet already had her laptop open when I asked her how many versions of her budget report were on her company’s SharePoint drive. As she navigated through spreadsheets, dashboard screens—each created by a different person for a different purpose–the only constant was the title of the report, “2012 Actuals.” This single report had sixteen different versions, not to mention all the formats, colors, column names and figures.
“Our business units are all trying to do the same thing with different tools,” she says. I can’t tell you how many new reports people create here every day. The trouble is that my CEO wants one number for revenues, one number for profitability, and one number for sales.” Who wouldn’t?
Janet calls it “lawlessness.” I call it “report-glut.” The proliferation of multiple reports with the same purpose, yet containing different data, results in divergent and often-contradictory interpretations. Business executives are unaware of the extent to which their staffs routinely reinvent the wheel to get the information they need. It’s a hidden cost, and a growing one.
Increasingly it’s not just the number-crunchers in your organization who use information. Everyone from product managers i, to call center reps, to the front-line worker in the branch or the store uses information to make decisions. The bad news is that these knowledge workers are unaware of colleagues who share the same reporting needs, and who might have already created meaningful reports.
The good news is that as information usage increases business intelligence tools are building support for communities of users. So called “collaborative BI tools” offer a way to access, view, refine, and comment on existing reports. Thus a broad audience of users can build and maintain re-usable reports on a common platform. This promises not only economies of scale—fewer people searching for information only to create reports that already exist—but smarter decision making through the exchange of ideas.
Collaborative BI tools apply social networking features to allow people to share goals and evolve their thinking in real-time. When Bill in Finance generates his monthly Top Line report, Craig in Marketing can leave a comment on the “Revenue” column inquiring, “Is this billed revenue or booked revenue?” thus inviting Bill to annotate his report. And in a Web 2.0 world people can get and stay connected. Craig no longer needs to wait for Bill to email his revisions. Instead he can be notified of Bill’s updates from his smartphone or tablet.
In the above report managers weigh in on the potential risks of being over budget. They can then gauge the effectiveness of key decisions—should we continue using Google AdWords given there was no drop in sales when we didn’t?—and come to a consensus-based decision.
Collaboration functionality embedded in reports offers the ability to not only access sanctioned reports, but to manage decisions. Business people are no longer at odds making decisions based on different interpretations of data. New employees can easily review past conversations instead of cobbling together disparate spreadsheets or relying on anecdotes from frequently-biased colleagues. And executives can monitor the logic behind business actions by tracking the evolving dialog.
And while the anticipated productivity gains of collaboration in business intelligence can result in cost savings, the promise of what the authors of Building a Collaborative Enterprise (Harvard Business Review, July 2011) called “organizational cohesion that is more robust than self-interest, more flexible than tradition” can increase revenues through more nimble decisions of a like-minded and focused collective. It’s the wisdom of crowds driving better business actions.
Janet is using collaborative BI to build what we’re calling a “common report library” at her company. “When people know where to go, they’ll be able to see what’s out there,” she says. “And maybe then we can all participate in the conversation.”
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