A CIO's data warehouse – Nine steps to success

If your 2006 to-do list includes a better data warehousing strategy, then let SearchCIO columnist Wayne Eckerson help you get your house in order.

A successful data warehousing initiative can generate revenue and cost savings. One IT expert shares his steps for restoring a data warehouse.

Wayne Eckerson

Many data warehouses are launched with much fanfare and promise but quickly fail to live up to expectations. According to research from The Data Warehousing Institute, most companies do not abandon these less-than-successful implementations, but rather restart them using a new strategy, new staff or new focus.

For example, Sprint Nextel Corp., which offers a comprehensive range of wireless and wireline communications services to consumer, business and government customers, restarted a data warehousing initiative in 2000. The project was led by Greg Jones, director of IT for Sprint Nextel. Jones and his team transformed Nextel's data warehouse into a strategic program that generated cost savings and revenue gains for the company prior to its merger with Sprint.

At a recent conference hosted by The Data Warehousing Institute, Jones described various steps that he and his team took to revitalize the company's data warehousing program:

  1. Recognize you have a problem. According to Jones, the first step is to recognize the key issues hampering the growth and usability of the data warehousing environment. "Our data warehouse became a repository for any and all data, regardless of the business need or value of that data," Jones says. "As a result, our data warehouse was too slow, too costly and queries took forever. It had both too much data, yet not the right data."

  2. Get adequate investment to do a makeover. The key to restarting a data warehousing program is to develop a solid business plan that lays out costs and benefits in concrete terms, according to Jones. Once the data warehouse gets a bad reputation, it takes quite a sales job to convince executives for additional investment for a makeover.

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  3. Start selling. Selling an enterprise data warehousing initiative requires more than just getting one sponsor on board. Eventually, sponsors from all groups will need to fund the initiative if it's going to provide enterprise value. So Jones did what many technical people are reluctant to do -- he sold the data warehouse.

    "I got my tap dance shoes on and ran around to every vice president in the business -- tax, audit, finance, etc. -- and asked about their pains, problems, and needs."

  4. Leverage Sarbanes-Oxley. When selling a data warehouse, Jones says you have to leverage every advantage you can. In effect, it helps to piggyback the data warehousing initiative onto strategic concerns the company is facing. Fortunately, Sarbanes-Oxley gave Jones the ammunition he needed, since an enterprise data warehouse is a major way organizations can ensure the quality and accuracy of information.

    "I emphasized SOX as much as I could," Jones admits. "I told the VPs, 'We need a single version of truth so we can the report data one way to Wall Street.' "

  5. Be memorable. The key to selling a data warehouse is to keep reminding the key individuals about the importance of the initiative, the benefits they'll gain, and the steps they need to take. "Set up a governance committee and invite someone in each organization who knows the data to sit on it," Jones says.

    But the key to a committee is empowering committee members and their organizations. Jones says, "Communicate to committee members that you want to tap into their expertise and that you are not interested in taking their data. If you can get them excited, they will spread their excitement to the rest of the organization."

  6. Overdeliver benefits. Business people often don't commit until they've received some guarantee that their investments will result in a success. Jones says the best guarantee is previous success. With tangible results to show, others are more willing to join the program, Jones says. "Since you won't get all groups to sign on right away, work with those who have the most interest. Make sure you deliver an order of magnitude more benefits than you promise. This gets the ball rolling."

  7. Plan for growth. You need a lot of confidence to deliver a successful data warehousing program. Before you have even a single sponsor and a dime of funding, you need to plan as if you are going to succeed beyond your wildest imagination. This means doing overly optimistic capacity planning. "You need a serious plan for scalability because if your system crashes or bogs down, you'll immediately lose credibility with the business," Jones says.

  8. Transition the architecture. Besides planning for scalability, you need to envision how you will transition your architecture from delivering point solutions to highly integrated enterprise information. "Initially, we created data marts for each group so they got just the data they wanted and query response times were fast," Jones says. "Once our data volumes grew larger and the number of data marts became unwieldy, we consolidated everything into a single dimensional model that becomes an enterprise transformation layer that we used to populate all data marts and applications."

  9. Standardize definitions. The hardest part about any enterprise information initiative is getting business users to agree on terms, definitions and rules. "It can be painful to get VPs to sign off on consistent set of rules for enterprise data -- it took us several multiday off-site meetings -- but it is important. If the data doesn't come out of the data warehouse, it's not official. However, we also ensure that they can get localized views of that data."

It is challenging to revitalize a data warehousing program, but following these important steps can help you achieve success.

Wayne W. Eckerson is director of research and services for The Data Warehousing Institute, a worldwide association of business intelligence and data warehousing professionals that provides education, training, certification and research. He is also the author of Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring and Managing Your Business. He can be reached at weckerson@tdwi.org.


This story also appears at SearchCIO.com, part of the TechTarget network.

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