Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Company You Keep

I went to a birthday party yesterday - one of my daughter's schoolmates had just turned four, so the children (and parents) of the class all gathered at My Gym for the rituals of gift exchange and cake consumption.

During the party I was talking to the father of the birthday boy, and was surprised to learn that he and his family were going to be moving to Atlanta in the next few days, and not returning to our wonderful school when the school year starts up next week.[1] We spent some time discussing the move and its motivations, and although I was sad to see them leave, I certainly understood the reasons behind the move.

Apparently the father is a forensic psychologist, who works at a large maximum security prison in the area. For 50 hours each week[2] he talks to, councils, and analyzes the worst of society's worst, and that was starting to take its toll, not only on him, but on his family as well. Although they did not really want to move, it was the least of the available evils from which they could choose.

This reminded me strongly of an article I read somewhere (I think it was the New York Times, but it probably doesn't matter at this point) about a married couple who were in the process of going through a divorce. The husband and wife were both highly educated and were educators themselves, but they had chosen different specializations. The husband taught graduate students at a large university, while the wife chose a career working with young children and specialized in early growth and learning. They were divorcing because - despite their shared background and training - they could no longer relate to each other. He spent his days around PhD candidates; she spent hers around kindergartners. And each one had as a matter of necessity refined his methods of communication to match the audience and the context[3] in which he spent his time.

By this point you're probably asking "what on earth does this have to do with business intelligence?"

As a wise man[4] once said, "the answer is within the question."

Business intelligence is about business. It's not about technology. At some level we all know this, or at least we've heard it or read it somewhere before. But because the application of technology is crucial to business intelligence - and because it is often because of that technology that we are involved in business intelligence - it is very easy to forget this fact that forms the foundation of what we do. Although the technology is what makes business intelligence possible, if we ever lose sight of the business drivers that necessitate the projects on which we work and the business problems which our projects are designed to solve, then we've already placed on foot firmly on the path to failure.

As I mentioned already, we all know this already, right? But then why are so many BI projects run by technology professionals, and not business professionals? Why is there not a stronger involvement by business decision makers and process/domain experts on BI projects? Why does it still seem to be about technology and not about business?

I think the questions are probably more interesting than any answers that I could provide, so I'm just going to leave them dangling there as food for thought. But the next time that you find yourself talking about memory buffer optimization or index tuning or aggregation strategies or proactive caching, make sure step back - take two steps back just to be sure! - and remind yourself of the business problem you're solving through the current task. And if you can't remember, then it's about time to take a break and see how you got to where you are, and ask yourself if you aren't headed for a nasty divorce yourself...

[1] If you are a parent of school age children you probably understand the glee with which I typed the words "last week." ;-)
[2] Which is the majority of one's waking hours, when you think about it.
[3] Which, as we all know, is practically everything when it comes to determining meaning.
[4] Not really - it was really me.

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