Business intelligence (BI) regularly appears in the list of top CIO priorities, and the benefits of effective BI for better decision-making are well known and well proven. But many BI strategies have been built up piecemeal over the years - BI software from one source, perhaps a datawarehouse from another, and often multiple databases too.
The BI market has gone through enormous change and consolidation in recent years, and new ways to deliver more integrated BI have emerged, offering greater benefits and lower costs.
At a recent Computer Weekly roundtable, in association with Oracle, IT leaders heard from Mike Blackmore, enterprise architect for BT's Oracle First programme, about how the telecoms giant is transforming its use of BI, and questioned him about his approach and some of the challenges he faces in such a comprehensive, ambitious, business-changing project.
"BI in BT is the story of BT," said Blackmore. "We have business processes and BI dating back 150 years. We are complex and big, operating in 170 countries with 150,000 employees, including 45,000 outsourced roles, which resulted in 8,000 individual systems with numerous ecosystems. We could not construct a single view of the enterprise across that estate."
BT's key performance indicators (KPIs) were not going up at the rate the firm wanted, while IT costs were increasing.
"We needed to look into the disparity between the two curves. Large organisations can be bureaucratic and inefficient and we found that within lines of business, lots of people were creating the same systems again and again. Ten teams would work on the same piece of functionality delivered to different users. BI around that is not intelligent," said Blackmore.
Radical action was required and IT experts were taken out of the business divisions and a specialist IT business unit created.
"Instead of about 30,000 people who were delivering and duplicating across the business, the IT team was split into two organisations - one that delivered the infrastructure and the other which focused on how to deliver what the business wants," said Blackmore.
A central plank of the strategy was to know that BI was effective, so the team had the power to go into the rest of the organisation to look at their use of BI.
"Telling people they were not in charge of information was a radical change. The enterprise information architect can look at any process in BT and say that the right information is not coming out of it," said Blackmore.
A second shift was to consolidate suppliers. "Spending with suppliers was going up so we investigated what the benefits would be if we committed to one partner and had a stack view with a common database under that and an integrated stack," said Blackmore.
As a result, BT cut back on existing suppliers and as part of a wider supplier strategy bought into Oracle BI.
"We had many BI technologies and each line of business had its particular favourite. There was a big reaction to removing IT employees and not letting people have the technology they wanted," said Blackmore.
Within three years, 8,000 systems had been slashed to 4,000 and a more homogenous technology is underpinning the organisation. The aim is to continue that consolidation.
"We had to move to fewer systems because if you cannot get data out, you have no view of business processes," said Blackmore.
As part of its wider supplier strategy BT opted for Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE) which has had a "pull" from users. "We did not have to cajole, hug or bully," said Blackmore, and that meant a swift take-up.
For example, Openreach uses the tool to analyse records and look at the BT network to determine investments for network blackspots. "We now understand data and people are working in smarter collaborative groups as people come together," he said.
"The power is wrapping collaboration around OBIEE. When people collaborate around data we want to capture the context and decision-making. This is the next step we are heading towards," said Blackmore.
Taking the complexity out of BI in such a large organisation "has taken strong governance".
"You must give people in charge of the BI strategy power and have a strong governance process to ensure the IT spend is not a bottomless pit and people cannot just go off and spend money on technology because they like it," Blackmore concluded.
Q&A: IT leaders question BT’s Mike Blackmore
How did you convince users to give up the tools they had and manage the drive to one BI system?
MB: People were lumbering with tools that were not fit-for-purpose. We showed them OBIEE [Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition] and they liked it. Also, we could say it costs millions for the tool you like, or with the investment in Oracle it is thousands, which often ends a conversation.
Getting people to accept OBIEE has been relatively easy as it is a very good toolset and people like squeezing data around in the way they want to see it, but BI exists in a world which does not affect process.
We are not asking people to change the way they do something, which is the hardest thing to do. Changing the processes this information builds out of is harder.
If you embed BI into processes and take what people love and build it into an application, your job is easier. Getting IT people to use it has been easy as IT people characteristically have a desire to learn.
If you try to give people a solution that does not meet their needs, can they put information into Excel?
MB: I want people to collaborate around a process. We are in business to do telco processes and we do not make money from selling spreadsheets. Excel is not the right path to create information, and if people collaborate around that information it is even worse as they should not have done it in the first place.
How do you move to collaborative intelligence?
MB: Collaboration should exist around a process and as part of an application and BI should be indivisible.
Put a collaborative wrap around BI so you can retain the context of that collaboration and capture intelligence around why a decision is made. Collaboration around data away from the process is lost in the wind.
What was the key factor to success for BT?
MB: The key to success was recognising that we had to do things fundamentally differently as what we were doing had a degree of inefficiency that was unacceptable.
The technology helped, but it is not a technology issue, it is a cultural shift. We are not there yet, but the business is healthier.
For example, customer retention rates are better and we are making smarter decisions as a business.
Do you put a quality mark on information? Unless you have a starting point about information can you go forward?
MB: OBIEE can get you two sets of conflicting information faster unless you understand the transformation and have quality-marked data and then give power to the areas where you need drill down.
There is always a discussion about what is the right data, but we have one IT person with architectural responsibility.
Master data management is crucial and the business is told who the masters of data are.
Two people will go into a meeting and say, "My manipulation of that data is better than yours."
Manipulation of data within a collaborative environment preserves what has happened to that data, so we know who was involved in decision-making and pull out the impact on the process.
The business needs a business analyst to guide them through the solution provided, but sign-off must be by the business.
How did you wrestle with reducing the number of metrics?
MB: We are still doing it, but it has to come from the top. You have to know what you need to know or you can measure too much, which shows a lack of confidence in the process.
How does business and IT work together?
MB: We started with IT in business and the separation caused a lot of pain. People cannot look around the door now and say, "I need one of those".
But everyone in BT understands the market position and what we are trying to do and that IT is adopting new techniques to deliver faster to meet the needs of a demanding business. Business still says what it needs and IT says how they will do it.
Are you inspiring the business to use information better?
MB: Despite some misgivings about divides between business and IT, there is recognition that both are working towards a common goal.
My role is to ensure we leverage every last penny out of our Oracle investment, but there are bits of the organisation that do not understand the art of the possible and when you explain to people about collaboration and the tools and techniques to facilitate that, it is the start of the journey.
Has compliance given you better behaviour?
MB: Yes, because it focused our attention on the provenance of information.
Core data to the regulator is quality marked and we understand what "good" looks like. You need to understand what data needs to be quality marked, for example data to the regulator, because you do not want to take a chance with that.
The key is understanding what data you can play with and which data you have to report back.