One of the myths surrounding business intelligence (BI) technology is that the right software will guarantee a successful project. While selecting the right type of BI software is important, it is not the most crucial factor for success. BI software is only one of the components that will help determine whether the user community will be satisfied with a BI project's deliverables.
How Should a CFO Approach a BI Project Then?
In a nutshell, you need to answer the familiar questions of Who, What, When, Where and How, which will in turn help identify the BI tool software capabilities desired. You should approach a BI project differently than a traditional application development project in which you start with a list of business requirements and map a process from start to finish. In fact, planning a BI project is just the opposite. Here, you need to start with the desired end result (output) and work backwards to determine the data input necessary to generate those reports and queries. After all, the transactional data has already been captured in one — or most likely more than one — system. For example, customer information may be stored in a customer relationship management (CRM) system, a revenue application and the accounts receivable (A/R) sub-ledger.
WHAT Are Your Driving Business Questions That Need to Be Answered?
The initial scope of your project should be limited to focus on the most urgent business questions with plans to build on your (successful) reporting capabilities in subsequent phase(s). A good starting point would be for you to identify five to 10 questions that are concentrated around one aspect of the business (e.g., customer, product, etc).
For each business question:
- Identify the information or "facts" needed to answer the question once the facts required for the output(s) have been determined;
- Break down each fact into its components — the calculations and base data elements necessary to generate the fact; and
- Identify the source system(s) for each data element.
This will serve as the basis for explaining to the BI team, WHAT information you want, HOW they should calculate that information and WHERE the acceptable sources of data are.
It isn't necessary for functional team members to provide technical information about where transactional data is stored, but providing as much insight to the BI team as possible will help ensure that the final results meet your expectations. For example, providing a "hard copy" sample of an existing report that demonstrates a metric may be sufficient guidance in future reporting.
HOW Will This Information Be Distributed?
Consider WHEN and how often this information is needed — periodically on a scheduled basis, such as quarterly, monthly, weekly or daily? Is there alsoa need to access the information on an as-needed or ad hoc basis? If so, who should have the ability to run these queries and what, if any, privacy considerations should be taken into account?
For example, to monitor company performance, you want to generate a report:
- On a weekly basis, (WHEN)
- That will be automatically sent to a distribution list of regional managers via e-mail, (HOW and WHO)
- Each Monday morning, (WHEN — more specifically)
- Containing the prior week's sales dollars and counts by store and by salesman for their assigned profit centers (WHAT) and
- Generate this report in a PDF format and an Excel format file will be saved to a report directory. (HOW and WHERE)
If your organization has the IT capability, perhaps you would prefer that managers access the reports via the Internet instead of creating the additional weekly e-mail traffic.
Answering the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and HOW questions provides important information to the BI team and helps in identifying operational requirements needed to assess the adequacy of existing system capabilities as well as help drive a software-selection process. By focusing on the business requirements, rather than the technology, you can ensure the success of your business intelligence project.
To gain more insight about Business Intelligence, don't miss AICPA's Practitioners Symposium and TECH+ Conference and join the following business intelligence related sessions:
- Leveraging BI Systems for Audit Efficiency
- Excel Based Dashboards
- How CPAs Add Value to a System Implementation
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Doris Cantagallo, CPA.CITP, is an independent consultant who has 30 years of experience in the accounting field including Big 4 public accounting, industry and advisory services. For the last 10 years her primary focus has been ERP implementations, financial reporting/business intelligence systems and data warehousing for clients ranging from SMEs to Fortune 500 companies. Cantagallo currently serves on the AICPA's Information Technology Executive Committee and is co-chair of the Business Intelligence Working Group.