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Brandon Harris

Cloud + Data Engineering + Analytics

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This is a series of articles in 5 parts. Each part investigates a specific challenge organizations usually run into, and the final part wrap-ups up with some of my additional thoughts and suggestions. You can navigate the series using the links in the list below.

Challenge #5 – Lift-and-Shift vs Refactoring
Challenge #4 – Why no one wants to use your new tools / platform!
Challenge #3 - Solving for Compliance
Challenge #2 – Organizational Rigidity
Challenge #1 – A Lack of Analytics Support (investment and success are correlated).

Challenge #4 – Why no one wants to use your new tools / platform!

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” - Bill Gates

Lack of adoption. This is one of the most common challenges I’ve seen technology and analytics leaders struggle with. In fact I’ve seen it so often, I typically use it as a topic during interviews. If a leader can’t describe their experience and a few related challenges they’ve had to navigate during a new platform deployment and adoption, it’s a pretty clear sign to me either A) they’ve never deployed a new platform or B) that they haven’t been very close to their customers / user base. I refer to this informally as the “Field of Dreams” problem.

“If you build it….”

It makes for a great movie quote, but it’s a horrible delivery plan. “So What?” is probably the more relevant phrase to consider, and it’s that “So what?” question that really underpins this challenge. Let’s say you’ve joined XYZ Corp as their new VP of Analytics or Chief Data Officer. There are a number of opportunities you see, but one of the biggest is the current BI platform, ClikCogBleau BI 3.11. It’s riddled with tech-debt, security and governance audit findings, infrastructure availability issues, not to mention the vendor changing their licensing model after your current agreement expires (in less than 6 months!) resulting in a 30% increase in costs for the same capacity. For the last decade, ClikCogBleau has been hosting reports and dashboards for the executive management team, the finance teams, HR and more. Below is a common high-level plan that many organizations will start with:

  1. Have your SQL savvy team member or BI leader pull report usage across the board and identify most-used / least-used reports.
  2. Work with data architects and DBA’s to reverse engineer the reports, then have them identify and catalog all of the data sources. This is always an eye-opening step. Think cron-job shell-scripts populating CSV files that use VBA voodoo to land data in Access which is then exported to an enterprise-grade RDBMS.
  3. Work with ETL / data teams to copy those data sources to BigQuery/Synapse/Snowflake/Redshift. (This is a big step, and probably worthy of an entire series of articles on how best to approach this. )
  4. Work with your cloud or devops team members to enable or deploy a cloud native reporting solution such as QuickSight, Power BI, Looker, ThoughtSpot, etc…
  5. Inventory and classify reports to rebuild / refactor / retire.
  6. Design a user access / authorization strategy (who can see which reports) that probably mirrors ClickCogBleau BI 3.11.
  7. Deploy and order party hats and pizza.

Unfortunately, even after all of that effort and careful planning, this won’t work! The biggest flaw here is that the most important aspect in this entire process has largely been ignored, and that would be our customers!

Author’s Note - “Customers” to me is an important word. I find it helps teams think in terms of what our “product” is, and it lets us clarify how we approach interacting with the teams that use our product. “Customers” can mean your internal business teams or partners or external customers.

Remember our “So What?” question? Now is about that time that it gets important. Asking that question too late will cause you a lot of sleepless nights and headaches. Let me demonstrate why. Let’s fast-forward the above steps to completion and have a conversation with our customers.

CDO: We took your old legacy system, ClickCogBleau BI 3.11 and replaced it with CloudDashPowerBoard, and we did it in record time!

Customers: Great! Why did we do that again? (“So What?!”)

CDO: To reduce tech-debt, leverage the power of the cloud and provide a more modern platform!

Customers: Great! What does that mean? (“So What?!”) Is the data loaded daily now instead of weekly? That would be huge!

CDO: Ah, no, not yet. See, we’re still loading from our on-prem data warehouse with the old processes, so it’s the same data.

Customers: OK, and it has more drill paths and drill-down / drill into capabilities? Can I generate my PDF-based billing statements for Accounts Receivable? (“So What?!”)

CDO: Kind of. The filtering is different, and we can’t dig into multiple levels all at the same time, and it makes PDF’s but they’re not pixel perfect by any means. But the neat thing is the data modeling language behind the tool is very powerf………

Customers: Wait, so who is going to generate those PDF billing statements? That’s how we invoice our customers. And those drill-down levels tie into the general ledger so we can validate that our numbers always balance.

CDO: Yes, but have I mentioned the cutting-edge, new and powerful data modeling lang…

Customers: Tell me ClickCogBleau BI 3.11 is still running, right? You’re not shutting it down?

If I had to guess, this conversation happens so frequently because most analytics organizations originated within or are very closely tied to IT. Technology organizations have become very adept when it comes to tactical activities: Delivering servers, upgrading workstations and laptops, doing whatever enterprise architecture does (just kidding….). These same teams typically lack depth around marketing, communications, and sales. They look at an effort like this as installing a new platform, and not as delivering new and valuable capabilities that directly solve pain-points for business teams. The missing component here is what amounts to a sales organization. In fact, I would go so far as to argue it’s one the primary functions of a CDO or data leader to always be selling their work back into the company.

Sales teams are very skilled in positioning products and features to solve customer pain-points. The best salespeople I’ve seen don’t even try and sell a product. Instead, they spend the time listening to their customers and help them by aligning solutions to their problems.

Author’s Note - I’m going to say something here that may strike you as a bit off, but it needs to be emphasized. Do not ask your customers what they want. Asking them this makes the customer feel like they need to give you a solution to build or deliver. That is your job. You need to ask your customers what current functionality is important to them, and what their problems and pain points are.

If we had spoken to our customers early on and listened to their pain points up front we would’ve heard:

  1. Data needs to be updated daily instead of weekly
  2. Data needs to be highly connected / easy to navigate and join across domains
  3. Output capabilities (in this case, PDF) are critical
  4. Automatic report generation / scheduling capabilities

If we spend some time breaking down these primary pain points a bit further a few more items emerge:

  1. Matching to the general ledger? Do we have SOX compliance concern we need to address for this environment?

  2. Billing statements in PDF? Is there PII exposure possibility here with names, addresses and more?

  3. If we load our data daily, do we have a change in performance or storage requirements?

  4. Queries used against weekly data would probably change for daily data. What does that change look like?

Now let’s rewind back to the initial set of work around the new CloudDashPowerBoard. We’ve had conversations with our customers and really done some digging into their pain points. We’ve prioritized the work that delivers the most value in the context of those pain points, and we’re ready to introduce it to our customers. Here’s how that might go:

CDO: We took your old legacy system, ClickCogBleau BI 3.11 and replaced it with CloudDashPowerBoard!

Customers: Great! Why did we do that again? (“So What?!”)

CDO: Well, I’m glad you asked! We know you need data sooner, so now it’s going to arrive daily. The old data model was difficult to use, so we’ve created an updated model that makes your queries simple to write and efficient to execute (and we’ve included some sample queries to help you make that transition.) You can schedule those new queries to run anytime, and to generate output in a number of formats, including PDF, CSV, XLSX and more. We’ve also ensured the proper controls are in place to support processing financial and personal data in this environment and made sure we have security around our data in-transit and at-rest.

Customers: …….. [a few minutes of awe-struck silence pass by]….. How do we get started?!!

Ultimately the root of this challenge comes down to your customers. Are you building / delivering for their needs, or what you think they need? Driving adoption for a new platform is about understanding how the platform can deliver value, and the easiest way to deliver value is by solving problems for your customers. The easiest way to identify those problems it to talk to them and listen.

I come from a technology background, so I know that teams are put together to tackle tough technical issues and not always designed for those soft-skill conversations and direct partnerships. Here are few frameworks and techniques that I’ve found useful that can help provide guidance and direction as you move to a more customer-centric delivery journey.

Have a good customer pain-point story? Want to share a great customer / value framework? I’d love to hear about it, feel free to use the comments section below!