A Gas Station Where Everyone Rides Horses

Or, how do you drive BI adoption?

I must give credit for the title of this post to Justin Duperre from American International College. We were in an exploratory call the other day discussing the challenges of deploying BI tools to users and conveying the potential for advanced data analysis. Justin felt that whenever he tried to explain the new capabilities and the benefits that they can bring to his organization, many times he was greeted with blank stares or an inability to really use it. "It's like dropping a gas station down where everyone rides horses."

This simple, clever observation captures the essence of a thorny issue we have struggled with for a while: how do you move people from where they are today towards leadership’s vision of becoming more data informed? One challenge we face as consultants is not bringing the horse to water, but getting them to drink. (Is this mixing metaphors?) What is the point of implementing all this amazing BI technology if people won't take advantage of it or don't even know how?

In our experience, most people don’t have the core analytical skills necessary to use BI effectively. There are several important cautions about using data, things to know about how it is created, what is the bigger context of the data, or the business processes that drive the data. Without a good understanding of these issues and a solid foundation of how the brain and mind work in absorbing and understanding visuals, unfortunate mistakes may be made that lead to undesirable outcomes. One way we have addressed this at ASR is by introducing a new course into our larger BI implementation projects called "Using Data for Informed Decision Making." The idea behind this three-hour workshop is to give people practical, real world examples of how they can interpret and use data to address challenges in their everyday work. In other words, we spoon feed water to the horse, so they know where it is and how to drink it.

There is also a common misconception that data will tell you what to do. There is nothing further from the truth. Data is just data. It is agnostic to decisions and doesn’t speak. It must be given a voice and be told in a story. It can be used or misused as it is applied by the human beings that interpret it. This is a fundamental challenge, as data must be interpreted – and there may be more than one interpretation depending on the analyst’s overall experience, understanding of the context, and familiarity with the business processes that create the data. Ultimately, someone must make educated hypotheses of what may be happening and then make reasonable assumptions of how it would change for the better if some action is taken. There are no black and white analyses, only gray and it is up to the analyst to tell this compelling story about what the data is telling us and what we should do.

This is at the heart of what makes adoption of BI difficult for any organization, but we have seen this most acutely in higher ed. Many people are not familiar with or trained on data and analytic techniques. This has never been expected of them and they are for better or worse fully consumed with their regular duties. While this can be addressed with training there is a larger issue of culture. In hierarchical organizations people tend to be risk averse and not comfortable trying something if they are not sure it will work. So how do you change this fear? This may sound cliché, but it starts with leadership creating a culture that rewards curiosity, exploration, and entrepreneurship. In other words, if you even get to the point where you increase analytical skills, they are not going to be used if people are afraid of being punished if they make a mistake.

So, before people can use the gas station, I guess we should give them the motorized car, teach them to drive, and provide seatbelts and airbags before putting the horses to pasture.