skip to Main Content

President Reagan in his famous “Tear down this wall” address, asked for the Berlin wall to be brought down. Believing that freedom and security go together. With the same sentiment, we make a call to tear down another wall.

Tear down the wall between IT and business, and bring Business Intelligence (BI) to everyone.

Note 1: IT and the Business team of course interface on many fronts, but for this article we would focus on Business Intelligence.
Note 2: The teams go by many different names. IT represents the central team, setup to meet the needs of the business user. Business User is the frontline personnel who have the need for BI, actionable data insights to run the business (could be Finance, Marketing, Executive Leadership team etc.)

I have spent time on both sides of this wall and will make some observations from my personal perspective. This is an amalgamation of the various Business/IT roles I held and not a specific role (in case my former colleagues are reading Smile). I realize I oversimplify and generalize a few points for the purpose of driving home the message.

Leave a comment and let us know how you have experienced the IT/Business divide yourself, pertaining to BI.

Business User

Majority of my career has been spent with one or the other business team. Here is my perspective on BI and IT’s role, based on that experience.

Low Opinion of IT: As a business user, to be blunt, I thought poorly of the central IT team. They didn’t seem to “get” my business requirements, and even if they did they were woefully slow to fulfill the request.

11 weeks: That’s the average time it takes to add a new column in an existing report

Guerilla BI: Therefore, I was largely left to fend for myself and resort to Guerilla BI. I would cobble together BI that I needed, using any means that I could. I would use a potpourri of technologies; largely reliant on Excel and it’s bag of tricks, but also heavy doses of SQL and a smattering of other tools (Tableau, Crystal, SSRS…).

Scalability Nightmares: I was actually really good at Guerilla BI, but that became part of the problem. I became a victim of my own success. My reports and spreadsheets gained in popularity and usage. But with that came the need to cater to a larger audience and increasing demands for changes/additions to reports.

Hero Syndrome: Even as the complexity grew, I could keep the system standing (barely at times) and be the hero. But, in spite of my best efforts at documenting and streamlining, a big part of my work died when I eventually left the role. It was too complex for someone else to step in and take it over. It just fell by the wayside.

IT (Central BI Team)

For this incarnation of mine, I was part of a central BI team. Whereas as a Business Analyst I was used to flying solo (when it came to BI); in this role I was working with a team. With a team, a certain “team dynamic” emerges. Here’s what it felt like to be part of the central BI Team:

Inundated by business requests: It was death by a thousand cuts. Many small requests would together make a mountain. We started with a clean slate, but soon had lists of items we would keep pushing out from one release to the next.

Doing a thankless job: Business users often think BI is “easy”. We were at times, told this to our faces. In fact, solving some of the BI problems at an organization level can be extremely challenging (ever tried to conform a Product table across various business groups while handling slowly changing dimensions?). It was hard to impress this upon business users who only viewed BI from their perspective.

Furthermore, with BI the bar constantly gets higher. It’s like running on a treadmill, you can never make the customer happy (for too long). In one instance, we changed the refresh lag from 2.5 months (yes, that’s right) to 1 day. What did we get in reward? Complaints about the few days when the daily refresh would fail.

Mistakes get magnified: With IT/Operations if things are running smoothly, people take little notice. But if one thing goes wrong, sh*t hits the fan. You are typically noticed, only when there is bad news.

Bias towards Inaction: Instead of moving as fast as you can, the focus becomes on stability and security. And the most stable system is one that never changes. Coupled with the previous factors, an inertia of rest settles in. You find yourself pushing back on changes rather then spearheading them.

Slow Spiral of Death

You can say that I had been in a messed up team as a Business or IT user. But I have seen this dynamic in a few different teams that I was part of. And witnessed the same tension between IT and Business, in the long list of engagements at PowerPivotPro.

It’s ironic that both BI efforts are doomed to fail. Both systems die a slow death: Guerilla BI primarily due to lack of scalability, and Corporate BI due to a lack of agility.

Both Corporate and Guerilla BI are doomed to a slow spiral of death

Which is a pity, since that results in business being run by the seat of the pants and gut-instincts rather than data-driven informed decisions. In the end it hurts the business which hurts all user groups.

Power BI Unites the World

I am usually wary of “technology” solutions, as all of us should be. In corporate America, you hear so many sales pitches of the form – just buy our tool and all your problems go away. But it rarely turns out that way. Same is the case with BI and the divide between IT and Business.

But I do believe that the tool has been the “missing link”. You can assemble the best team in the world, but there is little the team can accomplish without the right tools.

Which tool would you chose to dig?

You need a BI toolset that is capable but also agile and scalable. Power BI delivers on all fronts.

I will not claim that Power BI is the only such toolset in the marketplace. It is hard to separate fact from fiction in the contested word of BI. Many a toolset comes with lofty promises but fail to deliver. In that sense, I can claim that Power BI is the real deal. I’ve experienced the metamorphosis myself when adopting these tools for our business group within Microsoft. And since joining PowerPivotPro, I have catalyzed and witnessed many such transformations across various companies.

Power BI can bring both teams together – IT and Business, by empowering both communities.

Once You Have the Right Tool, It’s All About the People

Many BI tool decisions are made at the top. After polished pitches from various BI vendors, the executive, picks their favorite. What seems like a great decision at the time, usually gets nowhere in the long run.

Most BI initiatives, fail to show a positive return on investment.

The only success stories that I have seen have been built from the ground up not from the top down. As awesome as Power BI toolset is…beyond that, it’s still all about the people. You’ve overcome a hurdle by equipping your team with the right toolset. But you still need to enable them to run at top speed.

Your Power BI Team

The management needs to involve all parties, the IT teams as well as the business users. Start with basic training for all, so everyone can appreciate the power and strength of Power BI. The benefits of this training are twofold.

Diffuse the Resistance to Power BI: Change is hard, even the change for good. People are naturally inclined to resist change. By involving everyone, you’re reducing the likelihood of obstructionists and naysayers. Do message Power BI as a layer on Excel or Excel++ rather than a replacement (Read how that makes a big difference)

Data Gene People: Rob anecdotally states that 1 in 16 have the “data gene”. They may come from all corners of your business, welcome them all. Basic Power BI training can help you surface the “data gene” people to the forefront, as they latch on to the power of these tools.

1 in 16 people have the Data Gene, seek them out for your Power BI team

An ACE to Bridge the Divide

Traditionally the “BI” teams have been placed within the IT team. This is a poor choice. Business Intelligence belongs to the business. You’re better off placing the BI team within a business unit. Or, you have another choice. Set up the BI team as a “Bridge” team between IT and your business units.

Little more than an year ago, while still at Microsoft, I heard a powerful BI transformation story. Seth Brickman used Power BI (in the shape that it existed back then: SSAS Tabular + SharePoint) to turn around BI for Holland America Cruise Line. There is a [link removed due to 404] case study you can read, but I was lucky to hear Seth talk about his journey in-person at a local meetup.

One part that appealed to me, was how he described his team was setup and it’s name. They had a kick-ass name – ACE: Analytics Center of Excellence. And they were setup as a bridge between IT and the business.

Analytics Team can help bridge the divide between IT and Business Units

Consider forming an ACE team of your own, with your data gene people. The ACE team would speak both languages, business and technical. The ACE team also needs to have the blessings of senior management and be empowered to act.

Time to Tear Down the Wall

The Berlin wall stood for 28 years and artificially divided populace of a centuries old city. In the years following Reagan’s speech it became increasingly inevitable that the Berlin wall would come down. It was an anachronism no longer suited for the new world. I say the same is true for the wall between IT and Business. The time has come, with tools like Power BI, for us to strike at the wall and see it crumble.

After which you would see, there is no real divide between IT and the Business user. An IT person is as invested in helping the business grow as a business user. And a business user can work shoulder to shoulder with an IT person in building their BI infrastructure.

Power On!

Avi Singh

Avi Singh has personally experienced the transformation and empowerment that Power BI can bring - going from an Excel user to building large scale Power BI solutions. His mission now is to share the knowledge about Power Pivot and Power BI.

This Post Has 16 Comments
  1. ACE! I Iike it. Gah I think about this issue A LOT, and this is an excellent explanation, thank you. BI is a two-part problem, people/organization and tools and even though we have better tools now 🙂 there’s still work to do getting organizations aligned in the right way.

  2. Microsoft is fully capable of facilitating the breaking of this divide. However, IMO, they are unwilling (or have no vested interest) to do so. As an aside, I have also seen that in some companies that IT is creating new BI divisions to take advantage of the new BI tools, and they are unfortunately also not business-centric. They contain Analytics COEs, and they are empowered only to train, not to help business units get easy access to the data they potentially need. The only viable solution is to restructure IT so that is has multiple purposes, not a single monolithic purpose.

    1. > The only viable solution is to restructure IT so that is has multiple purposes, not a single monolithic purpose
      David, that’s an interesting idea. I wonder if any large companies have experimented with that. For smaller companies usually the borders are quite porous as each person wears many hats.

      As for Microsoft’s role. In the exposure that I’ve had, they’re geared towards speaking with IT/CIO office. That’s where Microsoft lands the Multi-Million dollar deals. We at PowerPivotPro love playing the foil to that 🙂 By focusing on the business user and starting small, and letting the “new” BI grow from there.

      Things are changing though; Chris Finlan and other such pioneers are changing the game within Microsoft.

  3. I am exactly what you stated when you were a Business User/Guerrila BI person. I am a victim of my own success where all divisions are asking for my help and literally my division doesn’t know how well they have it. Outside my division I am viewed as a rock star, inside my division I feel like Milton….

  4. Avi –
    Great post! In my experience, an “ACE” group is paramount to any successful movement toward useful enterprise BI. Furthermore, this ACE group (I have labeled one such structure as RADD – Rapid Analytics Design & Discovery) requires middle management to truly be successful, in addition to Executive sponsorship. This allows for a more natural bottoms up/tops down engagement as well as ensuring the organizations priorities are being addressed first. My last thought in regards to this ACE group is it needs to be attached to a business unit with organizational access to IT, PMO, and Change Management Org. My reason behind this, is the priorities and context should come from the business and the future vision and infrastructure should be well understood by the Analytic’s team. The ACE team should also be driving toward an enterprise ready solution once the business is comfortable with the business solution.
    One final thought. How do you suggest locating these 1 in 16 people in a large organization? In my experience, it has usually been mostly grassroots or through middle management. I have found that often middle managers think some of their employees have this “data gene” when in reality they are able to run an Excel report given a documented process.
    Just my 2 cents 🙂

    1. How do you suggest locating these 1 in 16 people in a large organization?
      This is a bit of chicken and egg problem.

      If you have a functional Analytics Team (ACE or similar), it tends to draw the “Data Gene” people to itself. If the ACE team is reasonably successful – actually they should be hitting it out of the park – other potential “data gene” people would become aware and be attracted to the team.

      Of course the challenge is how do you set up a team to begin with? The cases I’ve seen, it has started with as small as one person. One Power BI ninja, with a supporting crew and grew from there. Getting some initial support is key. At least strong support from the Ninja’s immediate manager.

      1. It appears I am on the right track then 🙂

        I think a message to these ninja’s I would give is this can sometimes be very frustrating as many are more comfortable with a traditional approach to IT spend despite higher costs, lower ROI, etc… I find myself repeating my message often but eventually the message gets through and people really start to open up to the idea. The most successful mechanisms I have seen (I think this has been mentioned in a previous post) is to SHOW what a program like this can do. Additionally, a succinct PowerPoint deck goes a long ways in getting your message across!


  5. Avi,

    I think you are on to something here: tearing down the walls is really a metaphor for what happens when the right relationships are built.

    That also includes re-building/re-thinking relationships between the executive steering committees and the central IT teams, especially where the central teams are primarily (read: eyeball-to-eyeball) accountable to those executives.


  6. I would differ between operational reporting, taking data from source systems, as is, from the more analytical view, like having one version of the truth. The first is real time data and the last can wait for 1 day ETL processing. It is different requirements.

    1. Hey Thomas, tell me more about this. Operational vs. Analytical reporting. I get it that they have different purposes…but isn’t it the same team that typically handles both. I suppose for a very large organization, there might be separate teams, but generally not.

      Plus, the same toolset Power BI, promises to deliver real-time data as well as analytical views. I have built numerous analytical views in Power BI, but only seen the real-time data in demos. But the same tool promises to cover both scenarios.

      So if it’s the same team and the same technology; do you still feel that the differentiation between Operational vs Analytical reports is important? Would love to hear your thoughts.

  7. Hi Avy. The operational and the analytical teams can be the same but that is not my main point here. Usually they are not the same.Operational reporting can both be real time reporting like shipment, inventory status but also raw and less time critical information from the source system, to deliver customer feedback. Repair data from smart phone suppliers is an example. Analytical information needs transformations because source systems do seldom reflect analytical requirements and they are not that time critical. One day delivery time is OK. There are supplier that claims that they cover most analytical requirements with templates but I do not believe that. I think that products like Power Pivot and Power BI help with providing capacity to local data mash up that needs to be produced in a short time frame. Do you need a subject area and raw view of source system data that can be time critical or less go for self service tools. If you need one version of the truth, like income statements and balance sheets go for the data warehouse approach.

  8. @Avi

    Power BI – is only solving half the problem faced by the business – DATA PULL (From DB)

    It does not address DATA – PUSH

    There is a “evil” spreadsheet present in every client that I work with – Its called as a “TRACKER”

    The current solution by the “Guerilla” BI (or the Business user) is to use something called as “Shared Workbook” – which has lots and lots of issues – preliminarily file corruption

    What is needed is a built in way in which a user can input something in to spreadsheet and click on a submit buttom – and this goes back in to the DB – of course we can do this with VBA – but this requires some level of expertise – When you approach IT with this problem their standard solution is some .NET application that takes ages to build

    MS has ignored this part of the problem – They once did have a Excel add-in called Template Wizard with Data Tracking – but they never bothered upgrading it to the post 2007 era and it died

    1. @Sam, @Avi. The challenge that Sam brings up is a pain in many companies, for many use cases, and for many solutions.

      My firm belief is that @Avi can take the vision even farther, and not only “Tear Down the Wall”, but Marry up Business Performance Management and BI. Power BI is the perfect fit for this, as Finance, Operations and IT, now can come together around the fire place, hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah!

      WIth the disclaimer of product promotion: Our team at Power Planner( have solved @Sam’s problem with enabling Write Back, Commenting, Goal Seeking and Member Maintenance for both Power Pivot and SSAS Tabular. Feel free to email me directly to get a free trial.

      Additionally, Power Update adds support to @Sam’s problem with ‘Push’ data. Power Update refreshes any Power Pivot in Excel or Power BI Designer workbook, and automatically publishes it to or emails it out as an attachment or a PDF.

      BI is in a paradigm shift as we know it. IT(BI/DataStewards), Operations(BI) and Finance(BPM) can finally start supporting each other with ACE.

  9. Great post.

    I sit in the middle of that IT vs Business divide, as a consultant.
    When IT doesn’t deliver, the business asks me to help.
    If I deliver, IT pitches a fit. The more popular the solution is, the more intense the backlash from IT.
    In time, my solutions are copied by offshore resources into whatever tooling IT prefers and users are told to switch. The UX is less important than central control. So I basically develop prototypes for an unappreciative IT. 😉

    A popular tool using Excel/VBA/MySQL is going through this now. Business designed it & loved it. IT fought it. After a few years of success, IT reproduced a subset of its features as a web app. Their limited knowledge of Excel underestimated what it is capable of. Many features were lost. The business wasn’t happy with the outcome but capitulated under pressure. Grumblers get a lecture on team spirit and an offer to custom-build a static report to meet their needs.

    As for the Data Gene, I’ve found brilliant data wranglers sitting in the receptionist’s chair, on the shop floor, working as temps, cranking out sales reports, etc. There’s not enough techies to go around. Let’s train & build new data experts from within the business. Power BI is a great way for people already adept at Excel to advance their skills. Use ’em or lose ’em…the best folks will eventually move on if they feel they aren’t growing.

    1. Sigh! Yes, that’s indeed how the story goes many times – between business, IT and a well-intentioned consultant. Totally agree, with you that data gene can be found in unlikely people in unlikely places. I do hope that folks who have the aptitude for this would train themselves and move on and move up in their lives. Power BI is a great opportunity to enter BI for many folks who never see themselves as BI.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *