Interview: Douglas R. Briggs, Director of Business Intelligence at Washington University
This week’s interview will be with Douglas R Briggs, Director of Business Intelligence at Washington University in St. Louis. Mr. Briggs has been active in the fields of Data Warehousing, Business Intelligence, and IT strategy and architecture for the entirety of his 19+ year IT career. He was responsible for the early adoption and promulgation of BI at one of the world’s largest consumer product companies, and is currently the Director of BI at one of the country’s most prominent research universities. He has consulted with numerous other companies throughout the United States with regard to effective Data Warehousing and BI practices. He holds a Master of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Williams College (Mass).
On your LinkedIn profile, you refer to yourself as, among other things, a business intelligence thought leader. What does this entail?
For me, being a BI Thought Leader involves balancing two kinds of activity. On one hand, I am often researching the state of the industry and the trajectory of its path toward innovation and improvement. I read articles by other experts in the industry, consult with my colleagues at other institutions, and confer with vendors who know details about how products are being implemented in the field. On the other hand I spend a great deal of time focused on the practical, implementation-based activities of my responsibility at Washington University. That helps me understand how the theory actually works out in fact, how implementations really go, and gives me a practical basis for my intuition based on my own experience.
Why is it important for business to place a high priority on getting their ducks in a row on the BI front?
Businesses who put enough effort into and priority on their BI initiatives have the opportunity to drive the discussion within their organizations regarding how data is used for decision-making. They can bring focused, deliberate technical discipline to this process to ensure that it’s implemented in a way that truly serves the organization as a whole and leads to real, actionable, reliable insights.
What are some of the potential negative consequences that can arise if businesses don’t take BI seriously?
The truth is that people will use data to solve their business problems, and they’ll work with IT or a formal BI team if there’s an effective relationship there. But when no such organization exists or that relationship is dysfuncitonal, those individuals will go off on their own, get data somehow themselves, and make their decisions based on whatever mechanism they design themselves. Another risk is that the business will lose the opportunity to identify opportunities in the market or within their own organization to reduce cost, improve service, or grow their business simply because they don’t have the BI infrastructure and discipline in place to identify and gather the right data, integrate it, and analyze it to draw effective, cogent conclusions.
You’re currently the director of business intelligence at Washington University in St. Louis. While no two days are the same, what sorts of things might you be tasked with doing on any given day?
Daily I tend to have two kinds of activities. I usually spend some time in the typical activities of managing the staff of my department. I spend a good bit of time meeting with stakeholders and customers forging relationships, investigating opportunities for projects or new initiatives, receiving feedback about our services, and “evangelizing” BI to groups who may not be familiar with our (relatively) new team and our work. Last of all, I spend time working on our strategic direction as a department, helping define and refine our policies and direction in support of the University’s goals.
In your opinion, are IT professionals generally as aware as they should be about BI, what it is and why they should care?
BI is far from where it was a decade ago, when it was considered a bit of a niche activity. Now the industry’s consensus is firmly set that BI is an essential portion of a CIO’s portfolio, so most IT professionals are aware of BI and what it’s place is in the overall value proposition of IT to the business. This is important because it speaks to the prevalence of awareness that BI has reached, so that IT professionals think in terms of reporting and BI as an essential component of overall service delivery to the customer and not simply a “nice to have” add-on or an afterthought.
How long have you been working in the BI space, and how have things changed in the niche since you first started?
I’ve been in BI the entirety of my career, which is entering it’s 20th year this summer. The biggest change for me in the BI space over my career is the development of industry-proven techniques for implementation and the evolution of BI from a minor discipline to an essential facet of a company’s IT strategy, reaching into every single department and line of business in the entire company.
How can businesses best create a comprehensive BI strategy that includes planning, implementation and support?
Businesses who don’t already have or are in the process of re-envisioning their BI strategy are often best advised to bring in outside help (i.e. consultants) to guide that process. Using resources who are experts in eliciting the true business needs, crafting that vision for BI in the enterprise, and defining the plan for organizational and technological changes necessary to implement it, companies can make sure they’re getting started on the right foot and can throttle the vendor’s involvement to match their own level of preparedness and expertise to make those changes once the direction is identified.
What can companies do to build a corporate culture where BI is given its proper priority?
Companies interested in creating a culture in which BI has a clear value proposition and gets the priority that it needs in order to deliver the greatest contributions to IT’s overall success can do a couple of things to ensure that: invest in leaders with excellent vision for what BI can do and how to accomplish that and keep BI at the table with the highest level of IT leadership (in many cases by hiring or promoting the BI leader to report directly to the CIO).
Do you find that you have to sell the idea of BI to clients or are they generally aware of the need for it and therefore merely need guidance on how to go about it?
Generally clients and customers have some familiarity with BI already and may even know some of the techniques and processes we use to deliver our services. It’s not unusual, however, for me to find myself advocating the kinds of opportunities and capabilities BI can help deliver when customers aren’t necessarily thinking in terms of where effective BI tools and techniques can take them after their most pressing need is solved.
What trends do you see in the BI space, and what changes may be ahead?
One of the most thrilling trends I’m watching right now is the tolerance for and interest in cloud-based BI solutions beginning to permeate larger and larger segments of the marketplace. When a company is willing to put their BI solution offsite, using external storage and computational resources, a host of new solutions open up for them, allowing them new horizons of functionality and flexibility that have been unprecedented until recently. I’m very excited to see how that facet of the BI space continues to evolve!