When implementing complex solutions, particularly in the area of BI, customers often run into the ‘tool assumption’ problem. Although they are not usually discussed in these terms, advanced BI products can be seen as rapid development tools that minimize the need for technical know-how. They work by limiting themselves to a specific type of application. This involves making assumptions about what kind of data will be processed and how it will be processed.
The difficulty that arises is that the assumptions made by the product designer are aimed at a fairly general market, which means that the products can do a lot of impressive things very well, but do not necessarily fill the specific requirements of each individual customer.
Unfortunately, the very features that make this kind of product so convenient to use the way it was designed to be used tend to make them difficult to use in any other way. In other words, when the salesman says in his presentation “All you need to do to define this type of report is press this button”, it often implies that there is no convenient way to define reports that are somewhat different.
BI software has come a long way, but the trade-off between convenience and flexibility still exists. A typical scenario is that a customer sees a presentation of a product, and buys the product because he is convinced that it basically fulfils his requirements. And in the project, it turns out that the product does indeed fulfil nearly all of the requirements. But as the project proceeds, one detail after another is discovered where the product does not quite work the way the customer expected it to.
Aside from performance, most of the quality problems and price overruns in BI projects are the result of seemingly small issues that the software platform fails to address, and have to be dealt with using complex workarounds. The customer will have to either accept these cost overruns or compromise his requirements.
To avoid this problem it is advisable to carry out a formal proof of concept workshop. Here, a short list of vendors are given a set of scenarios based on real data and asked to implement a small project.
A proof of concept should include the following:
- A list of requirements for the vendors
- A set of scenarios the vendors can implement in a day or two, which should include the requirements.
- A final presentation by the vendors to the end users
- A questionnaire for the end users to allow them to give their opinion of the results.
When carrying out a proof of concept, don’t forget the basics. For example:
- About two thirds of the time spent on a typical BI project is spent on data import. Make sure the vendors can import your data.
- BI projects often run into difficulties because the product runs into technical or security issues at the customer site that are not anticipated by the vendor. Allow half a day or more for installation.
If the vendor or other external implementers will be carrying out the project, then it also makes sense to check their technical and communication abilities. This is vital to the success of the project.
Most importantly, make sure the proof of concept offers you some kind of closure: when it is over, no matter what the results are, you should be in a better position to make a final decision about which vendors to remove from the list, and which to keep.