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A tip for success: Keep the business users engaged

Think back on your career. How many successful projects can you name?

We in IT are notorious for building systems that are not used. Think back on your career. How many successful projects can you name? One of the reasons we are often not successful is that we don't engage the users. We always take the 10,000-foot view of what they want and then give them whatever we think they want (or worse yet, what we think they need regardless of what they say!).

One of my colleagues once pronounced, "In my whole career spanning 10 years, I take pride in never talking to those end-users." As we were embarking on the first data warehouse at this company, the first task I assigned him was to interview "those end-users" to find out what they think a data warehouse is. Many computer professionals do not like to talk to users. They like to do their designs, write their code, and do their testing. That was OK when there was another group of folks who defined the requirements. But now we have smaller teams building systems that will directly affect users in our organizations.

We must learn to listen in a different way: to look at what someone says and try to put meaning behind it.

I worked with a small company once where the VP of Marketing refused to sign off on the data warehouse because what she wanted first was in Phase Three. As I probed to understand why, she said that unless she could do analysis by UPC code, the data warehouse would not be useful. But, I told her, the source systems do capture the data by UPC code at the moment in all the stores, and the phased approach is to allow more stores to go on-line with UPC capture before providing the data. The logic was falling of deaf ears. She continued to say, unless the UPC data is not in the first phase, she could not sign off on it. I spent some time with the CIO asking why he thought that may be. No good answer was given. I was speaking with one of the programmers one day who told me that this company has never delivered on any system past Phase One. Well, I now understood the problem: Phase-anything-but-One would never be delivered. Since the VP of Marketing wanted the Phase Three, what she was saying is that she knew Phase Two and Three would not be delivered and that this would not be acceptable.

Ah, the things we learn. So, asking the CIO to humor me, we changed the document to state that we would build Phase One of the data warehouse in three steps. I changed the wording so that everything would be Phase One and that the original three phases would be called steps. We delivered that document to the VP of Marketing and she walked into the CIO's office and proclaimed, "Now, you finally are going to build what I want!" We all acknowledged that this is in fact what we were going to build, and off we went.

This is not a technical issue. We must work constantly with our end-users to make sure that they (and we) understand what is being built and that we all agree that this is the correct way. It is our end-users who will determine the success of the data warehouse. We can build the most incredible data warehouse, but if it is not used, will it be successful? Keeping our end-users engaged in the decision making process will ensure the success of the data warehouse.

About the Author

Chuck Kelley is president and founder of Excellence In Data, Inc. and an internationally known expert in database technology. He has more than 20 years of experience in designing and implementing operational/production systems and data warehouses. Kelley has worked in some facet of the design and implementation phase of more than 35 data warehouses and data marts. He also teaches seminars, co-authored a book with W. H. Inmon on data warehousing and has been published in many trade magazines on database technology, data warehousing and enterprise data strategies. Please feel free to email him at with comments (negative or positive) about this column or ideas for future columns.

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