The Secret Lives of BI Decision-Makers

The Secret Lives of BI Decision-Makers


By Stephen Swoyer | Writer

When we think about leadership, we can’t help but project ourselves into a Walter Mitty-like role. In case this doesn’t ring any bells, it’s an allusion to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” an oft-anthologized story penned by James Thurber in 1941. Thurber’s tale has its titular character daydreaming his way through life, chiefly because (from Walter Mitty’s perspective) his daydream-scape – wherein he assumes the identity of an Air Force pilot, among other characters – seems preferable to the routine of his workaday existence.

The parallel to leadership has precisely to do with the problem of routine: i.e., the boring.

Sample a dozen books on “leadership” and you’ll read very little about boredom. Instead, you’ll be captivated or intimidated (and sometimes simply inundated) by tales of challenges met, competitors bested, orthodoxies or conventional wisdoms outstripped, difficult or hard decisions made, and so on. Books on leadership are (almost by definition) exercises in Mittyesque storytelling: nobody wants to read (much less to publish) a boring book on leadership, after all. Thus the problem: leadership in business is preoccupied by the Cult of the Challenge; would-be leaders are encouraged to welcome (or to “seek out”) new challenges and to take their measure – i.e., as leaders, as decision-makers – by “mastering” them. In this regard, the metric of the difficult decision point, or DDP, assumes a kind of critical importance. The more DDPs one racks up, the bolder, the more decisive, the more imaginative one’s leadership! But what if the most important component of leadership is the routine? What if a definition of leadership that gives disproportionate weight to the anomalous – e.g., to critical “challenges” or to existential “decision points” – is actually unhelpful? What if – like the daydreaming of Walter Mitty – the Cult of the Challenge is a way for us to distract ourselves from the dull, boring, and uninspiring, but (for all that) the inescapably critical, aspects of business management?

This last question has especial salience with respect to business intelligence (BI) leadership, especially in the context of a BI industry besotted by big data, advanced analytics, and other breaking technology trends. The urgency attending big data, especially, all but demands a DDP-like response. If you don’t have a big data strategy, fuhgeddaboudit: you risk consigning your company to obsolescence – or (worse still) to the fate of a footnote buried deep in the backpages of an SEC filing. (“On May 30th, 2017, we acquired the assets of the former Acme Anvils Inc., a defunct provider of steel and iron props for the film and cartoon industries. Acme went into receivership because it missed the big data and CGI waves.”)

Threat Inflation, Big Data-Style

Earlier this year, Michael Whitehead, CEO of agile data integration (DI) specialist WhereScape Inc., offered an exasperated assessment of big data hype. “We haven’t solved the basic problems yet,” he told me, citing the performance issues – e.g., poor usability, limited uptake, and notorious inflexibility – that plague BI tools and BI programs.

“What’s happening at the edge is all very exciting, but at the core it still takes far too long to build a basic data warehouse that is changeable and just works,” he argued. Whitehead conceded that he saw promise in big data – but qualified his concession with a caustic to-be-sure. “[Big data is] an excuse to ignore those [historical] problems with BI [tools and programs] and focus on something else. Something new. While we’re doing that, we can tell ourselves that this time it will be different. Big data [technologies] will fix these problems.”

What’s encouraging is that BI decision makers are staying the course. In spite of a barrage of big data-themed marketing, CIO action items for 2013 look…superficially similar to those of 2007. Such was the counter-intuitive finding of this year’s edition of “The Successful BI Survey,” which is published annually by BIScorecard, a business intelligence and information management consultancy. “Big data is … way down [on] the list [of priorities] for most [respondents],” Cindi Howson, a principal with, told me last October. Instead, she said, BI decision-makers are focusing on dashboards and self-service BI, as well as on mobile BI efforts. In addition, Howson and BIScorecard flagged an ongoing focus on integrating data sources and eliminating silos. (This last is a seemingly never-ending effort, thanks to the irrepressibility of spreadmarts and rogue information sources, to say nothing of the inevitability of mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations. In other words: the inescapable conditions of both business and business processes work to contest it.)

In short, BI decision-makers are (at least with respect to the terms outlined above) acting leader-y. Holding fast, standing firm, digging in – pick the metaphor of your choice – in face of a full-on big data-style box bombardment. Of course, the dashboards they’re building (or which they plan to build) aren’t anything like the dashboards of 2007 – they’re altogether more interactive, use more helpful (or intuitive: i.e., “disclosive”) visualizations, and likewise incorporate more sophisticated analytics (fed by or running against a more diverse complement of data sources) than did their predecessors. Ditto for their self-service BI efforts: self-service isn’t anything new, but – with big BI vendors such as Information Builders Inc. (IBI), IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., MicroStrategy Inc., Oracle Corp., SAP BusinessObjects, and SAS Institute Inc. now shipping self-service BI discovery tools – it’s starting to become a lot more compelling. So, too, is mobile BI: QlikTech Inc., for example, started employing a mobile-first development philosophy last year. Other vendors have followed. There’s legitimate reason for optimism in these developments.

There are also grounds for a sobering reality check. Even though BI vendors are delivering improved (i.e., substantively usable) tools, and even though decision-makers not only haven’t succumbed to big data hysteria but (to their collective credit) seem committed to getting their BI houses in order, a critical metric of BI success – viz., adoption – continues to lag.

More to the point, BI adoption hasn’t changed. Not one iota. There simply hasn’t been any improvement – that’s “any” as in none whatsoever – in BI adoption. This is in spite of more interactive, visual and compelling dashboards; more self-serviceable and inviting BI tools; and more mobile-optimized BI applications. To wit: BIScorecard’s “Successful BI Survey” found that BI adoption in 2012 mirrored that of 2005; in both cases, less than one-quarter of potential information consumers were regularly using or interacting with BI.

Re-imagining Leadership

It’s possible that BI simply can’t be pushed out to, or taken up by, more than one-quarter of potential users in any organization. This seems unlikely, however.

It’s more likely that BI adoption is a hard problem. Perhaps not an intractable problem, but an exceptionally tough nut to crack, for all of that. On paper, BI adoption seems like the kind of challenge that screams for leader-y intervention. That it remains a challenge; that — in spite of the best efforts, determined decision-making, and imaginative thinking of leaders everywhere — BI adoption has instead languished, is perplexing.

Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish between “challenges” and “intractabilities.” Over time, challenges can become intractabilities; however, the latter do not cease to be challenges – even though we no longer choose to frame them as such. Instead, the allure of the intractable as a challenge – i.e., its appeal to the human imagination – does diminish; far from celebrating the intractable as an ongoing or unmet challenge, we instead wish that it would simply…vanish. Intractabilities embarrass us; they make us uncomfortable.

Today, plenty of brilliant and imaginative people are working to address intractabilities such as poverty and income inequality. They’re unlikely ever to “surmount” or “overcome” these challenges. The best that they can hope for is to meet them – if not head-on (as a text on business leadership might insist), then at an angle: obliquely. In this context, brilliant, daring, audacious, and impactful leadership can take the form of “winning” an equilibrium or of moving the proverbial needle. In other words, leaders in the fight against these intractabilities are those who make a difference, however statistically significant; they aren’t always clearly or indisputably “overcoming” challenges.

Let’s look at another example: in the United States, energy policy is often framed as a choice between “dependence” or “independence.” (An alternative is to see energy policy as a choice between sustainable development – via renewable sources – or unsustainable “dependence” on nonrenewable resources, such as fossil fuels. Once again, the axis is dependent/independent.) Some folks contend that by extracting energy from untapped petroleum deposits (such as shale oil and tar sand), by radically expanding existing offshore drilling efforts, and by pushing for a resumption of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), we can eliminate our dependence on foreign energy sources.

There’s an analogy to BI here, believe it or not. Today, for example, some folks argue that improved data visualization and self-service capabilities, used in combination with new and emerging big data technologies, can help BI to lick its intractable adoption problem. Both cases make use of a drastic oversimplification to frame a complex problem – viz., an intractability – as a clearly defined “challenge;” both likewise have recourse to a technology silver bullet – let’s call it a deus ex techne – to address this oversimplified challenge.

The intractable aspect of energy policy doesn’t have to do with a dependence on non-renewable resources from non-domestic suppliers; nor with the environmental affects – demonstrable or merely hypothetical – of this policy; nor with the degree to which this policy might be vulnerable to geopolitical disruption or instability. (Little enough is said about it, but an Iranian move to menace the Straits of Hormuz could effectively cripple the international oil trade.) Instead, it has entirely to do with the fact that people disagree about all of these things. It has to do, then, with the people and process problems – e.g., with issues of self-interest, prestige, power, and so on – that are at the core of all disagreements. To oversimplify a complex problem by condensing it into a neatly-framed challenge or into a spectrum of challenges is unhelpful. It ignores the human and organizational problems that are at the root of any and every intractability. What’s more, it encourages polarization between and among stakeholders: the more we oversimplify an issue, the more we polarize it. Highly polarized issues can’t be easily or satisfactorily negotiated; they can, conversely, be conclusively and irrefragably decided. They also tend to look great on a resume or CV.

For example, a classic response to the intractability of BI adoption is to mandate BI usage. Organizations standardize on a single BI stack, with centralization of all decision support data; prescribe the use of one-size-fits-all tools — or of tools which presume a single, controlled interaction model; anoint the data warehouse as the end-all, be-all of data access; sanction access to the data warehouse only for select tools, for a suite of tools, or for a certain privileged group of users; identify and mercilessly extirpate any or all rogue BI practices, such as databases, BI discovery tools, and spreadmarts. All of these are variations on the top-down strategy we’ve been employing — and doubling-down on — for years.

How’s that working out for us?

The success of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and BI discovery trends – to say nothing of the stubborn persistence of the spreadsheet – demonstrate that BI usage simply cannot be mandated. Not now. Probably not ever. If a putative “user” feels frustrated with a BI tool, she’s going to go out-of-band: she’s going to look for an alternative. If a person associates the use of a BI tool or the requirements of a BI standardization effort with a diminution of power or prestige (for herself, for her department, for her privileged or at any rate accustomed role in a process), she’s going to fight it. You can “mandate” her use of the BI system, but you can’t make her willingly or productively use it. This is a critical distinction.

An efficacious approach to BI leadership involves what might be called “decisive” or “difficult” negotiating, as distinct to Walter Mittyesque decision-making. Real and effective BI leadership takes the form of arbitration or brokering, as well as of pragmatic consensus-building. It might indeed involve the use of (or alignment with) decision-making power – not as a means to impose one’s will but (instead) to bring resistant or uncooperative constituencies to heel: to drive or urge consensus, however grudgingly.

An effective leader needs to be as much of a Jane Addams-type – i.e., a prototypical social worker – as a Napoleon- or Genghis Khan-type. Unfortunately, it is far easier to daydream about being Jack Welch than about being Jane Adams. BI leadership in this context is the stuff of routine, tedium, frustration, and exasperation. It’s a recipe for boredom – if one loses sight of what’s at stake. Or if one if one is given to Waltter Mittyesque daydreaming.

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with more than 15 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence and data warehousing for almost a decade. He’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems about which BI and DW vendors almost never want to talk. Swoyer lives in and loves Nashville, TN – though he’s never once been to the Grand Ole Opry, can’t tell Keith Urban from Keith Olbermann (one’s a sportcaster, right?), and thinks Sweetheard of the Rodeo is the best darn record the Byrds ever cut. You can contact the author at

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1 Comment
  1. Thank you for this blog, it was just what I was searching for. There is so much information here, so I thank you so much for enlightening my mind.

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