Putting the Car Before the Horse

An alternate title for this article could also be:  ”How to put the Intelligence in Business Intelligence.”

Henry Ford is famous for saying “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black.” In this day and age, a statement like that is laughable, with “The customer is always right” being the predominant philosophy today. But there’s another thing Ford said that gives a glimpse into why he was so successful, and provides us a much better opportunity to be leaders in our industry:

“If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have told me, ‘A faster horse.” – Henry Ford

The idea of a faster horse seems ludicrous, but Ford was right about what his customers would have asked for. It’s telling also that the first time I heard this quote, Ford was being quoted by Steve Jobs, another visionary leader in his industry.

All too often, people see Business Intelligence through the lens of what they already know: Reports. In this case, that is our horse. Our customers may ask for a faster horse: Quicker, better, fancier reports. On some occasions, we have been asked to do things like develop reports that are hundreds of pages, to be distributed on a monthly basis to hundreds of people. Another example of “horse” thinking is to show a gigantic table with hundreds of thousands of rows or more. While certain segments of these could be interesting, they are either a representation of raw data or an aggregation of data at too low of a level to be useful. Nobody is going to read through a 300-page report, and even if they did it would be difficult for them to glean useful answers from it. It’s also possible to go too far in the other direction and display a single representation of the data such as a high, low or average – Interesting, but not particularly useful for making business decisions.

In all these cases, the user feels good, because they “have data”. However, simply “having data” is not what Business Intelligence is about. Business Intelligence is about providing useful, interactive, actionable representations of data. Reports tell us where we are. Business Intelligence should be telling us where to go. A report may answer the question “What is our best-selling product?”, but a Business Intelligence solution should allow us to answer the question “Why is this our best-selling product, and how can we apply this to our other products?”

Our job as consultants is to be the best in our field, to be the visionaries, to maximize the return on our clients’ investment in us. To do that, we must understand each client’s business. We must ask lots of questions, and some of them might be difficult. Perhaps most importantly, we must remain flexible and focus not on replicating existing systems, but on the questions that we’re trying to answer with the data. That is what will allow us to avoid simply making the horse faster, and deliver a car instead.

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