I’ve been working in the field of business intelligence for over ten years, as a consultant for over five years. One thing I’ve learned from that time is that consultants need the client’s help to complete a project on time and on budget. Even if the consultants are doing the bulk of the work, project owners and stakeholders have a large impact on the project.
When you hire a business intelligence consultant, both you and the consultant want to see your project succeed. While a good consultant can guide you through important decisions and manage a BI project in addition to doing the technical development work, they need your help to get the project started off right and to continue to meet deadlines and requirements. A BI project requires collaboration between the consultant and the client. It’s usually not the type of thing you can throw over the fence and get back a satisfactory solution. We need to understand your business and how you think and talk about your data in order to give it meaning and make it accessible in a data model or report.
In my experience, we consultants write assumptions and project prerequisites into Statements of Work (SOWs) and mention them on planning calls, but we don’t always emphasize how important they are to project success. And we’ll often work around missing prerequisites to try to keep to the project schedule as best as possible, to varying degrees of success. As a client, your organization has allocated budget to your BI project that could have gone to other priorities. We understand this and are motivated the use that budget to accomplish your project goals, but we often spend a lot of project time overcoming obstacles related to lack of access to environments and technical assets and lack of client/stakeholder involvement. The problem/opportunity is already challenging or you wouldn’t need a BI consultant, so why not do what you can to remove barriers that are within your control and help steer the project toward success?
With the help of a few co-workers/work friends I’ve compiled a list of ten ways you can help your BI consultant (and therefore your BI project) be successful. Special thanks to Josh Roll, Melissa Coates, and Levi Syck for your input and feedback on this list.
- Have your data sources ready before you start. A good consultant can get started with design and stub things out or use fake data, but it will take us longer and quality will be questionable until we get our hands on real/realistic data.
- Work out data access (network/Azure/Power BI logins, VPN access, database access, etc.) for your consultants ahead of time, not on the day of project kick-off. So many projects get stalled at the outset because the consultants don’t have access to the data and environments they need.
- Help your consultant understand any political/departmental boundaries too. If you know that some department owns some needed data and that they are possessive about it, be up front and consider ways to get them involved, rather than leaving us to go and blunder through, possibly stepping on toes in the process. Provide context for the project. How does it help your organization achieve its larger goals? Who came up with the idea? Has something similar been tried before? Consultants get to do similar projects at different companies, so they bring good experience and ideas for overcoming technical and organizational challenges.
- Make sure you understand the time commitment of a BI project and make sure project owners, technical contacts, and subject matter experts can be available as needed. Be involved throughout the project, but especially during user acceptance testing to ensure our solution covers your use cases.
- Be able to define success criteria. You may not be able to dictate all the business and technical requirements, but you should be able to work out what success looks like on your project. Your consultant can help you define success, but things will go better if you have given this some thought beforehand.
- If you have existing database or ETL frameworks or naming conventions you would like to be used, make sure they are documented, or make someone available during the first few days of the project to explain them and answer questions. Don’t leave your consultant to guess.
- If your consultant sends you project planning and requirements documents up front, rather than after the fact, they are using these documents to establish understanding and agreement. Take the time to read them and ask questions. As consultants, we have a limited amount of time to become well acquainted with your data and use-cases, and we operate under the assumption that you will steer us in the right direction if you see us veering off the path.
- Be aware of your data hygiene. If your data is incomplete or dirty we’re going to need your help deciding how to handle it.
- Plan for an iterative development process. Know that everything probably won’t be perfect the first time. We probably can’t fit everything into the initial scope. Make sure there is room in the timeline for testing and rework. Generally, iterative projects have a higher chance of success than very large big bang projects. You can still get to the larger vision, just know that we will probably ask you to break it up into smaller, more manageable chunks. Also, be prepared to make decisions in the face of ambiguity. Not all architecture and design decisions can be made with absolute certainty. But they often need to be decided to move forward and can be adjusted down the line, if necessary when priorities change or new information comes to light.
- Identify who will support the solution after the consultant is gone. Involve that person or team early. It’s better for the support team to learn about the solution over a period of weeks or months, rather than cramming everything into a knowledge transfer session and a document at the end of the engagement. If you don’t have anyone to support the solution, be honest with yourself and request a separate support contract up front and factor it into budget requests or allocations.
I hope you’ll find this list useful in planning your next engagement with a BI consultant. If you are a BI consultant or have worked with a BI consultant, please leave a comment about what you would add to this list.