Andy on Enterprise Software

Culturing BI projects

August 30, 2006

In a beye network article Gabriel Fuchs raises the issue of culture when it comes to business intelligence projects. I think the issue is valid, but it goes far beyond the rather crude generalisations about nationalities that he makes in the article.  In my experience corporate culture is every bit as important as the general culture of the country where you are doing the implementation.  Take two contrasting examples from the oil industry (I choose this because I have worked for both these companies): Exxon has a highly centralised culture driven from central office in the US.  Shell, by contrast, is decentralised in nature and is much more consensus oriented.  This is highly relevant when implementing a BI project, because in a company with a decentralised culture you need to take into account the needs of the local subsidiaries far more than in a centralised culture. In Shell, if something was decided centrally then this was a bit like traffic signals in Manila: they are a starting point for negotiation. Someone in central office could define some new reporting need or technical standard, but the subsidiaries had a high degree of leeway to ignore or subvert the recommendation (Shell is less decentralised now than it was, but even so it is still highly decentralised compared to Exxon).  In such situations it was important to get buy-in from all the potential influences in the project; for example it was wise to produce reports or BI capabilities that the subsidiaries find useful rather than just the notional project sponsors in central office.  By contrast in Exxon, while it is sensible practice to get buy-in, if you were in a hurry or things were intractable then central office would be able to ram decisions down the throats of the subsidiaries without much resistance.  Incidentally, both cultures have advantages and disadvantages, and both companies are highly successful, so it would be a mistake to think that one culture is inherently better than the other.

In BI projects such issues come up a lot when discussing things like data models, and agreeing on international coding structures v regional or local ones.  Sometimes projects that did not go well were ones where these inherent cultures were ignored.  For example Shell spent a lot of time and money trying to ram together five European SAP implementations, and ultimately failed to do so, ending up with five slightly different implementations.  There was no technical reason why this could not be done, or in truth any real business reason, but it went against the culture of the company, so encountered resistance at every level. 

In my view such company cultural issues are very important to consider when carrying out enterprise BI projects, and are often ignored by external consultants or systems integrators who blindly follow what is in the project methodology handbook.