Data Culture: Getting stakeholder buy-in

Have you ever heard the term “Excel hell”?

Odds are, if you’re reading this blog you’ve heard it, and possibly lived it once or twice. If not, you may want to take a minute to search online and discover what the internet has to say about it.

Managed self-service BI with Power BI is one way to escape or avoid Excel hell, but any self-service data tool brings with it some of the same risks that Excel brings. Power BI introduces guardrails to make it easier to manage the work that self-service authors produce, but wouldn’t it be nice to address the problem at its root, and prevent unwanted content from being shared in the first place?

The video introduces a set of techniques to gain explicit stakeholder buy-in. For the enterprise Power BI customers I work with, these steps are usually prerequisites to getting a Pro license and permission to publish to the Power BI service, but they may be required for other activities as well.

  1. Ask for it – rather than automatically issuing licenses in bulk, issue licenses only to users who explicitly request them
  2. Sign a data covenant – require users to sign “terms of use” for working with data in ways that align with the goals of the organization.
  3. Take a test – require users to take and pass a simple[1] test
  4. Complete training – require users to attend Dashboard in a Day or similar introductory training

None of these barriers is designed to keep anyone from getting access to the tools and data they need. They’re designed to make people work for it.

As mentioned in earlier posts and videos, humans are complicated and tricky, but most people value what they earn more than they value what they’re given. And if someone works to earn the ability to publish and share data and reports, they’re more likely to think twice before they publish something and forget it.

This is a small but effective step that can reduce the ongoing effort required to manage and govern the content published to the Power BI service. And if you put the entry point[2] to requesting access in your central portal, you’ll be helping reinforce the behaviors that will make your data culture grow, right from the beginning.


[1] Emphasis here on “simple” – every company I talked to who used this approach designed the test so that anyone could pass it.

[2] Power App, Customer Voice form, ServiceNow ticket, whatever fits your processes and requirements.

Data Culture: Now you’re thinking with portal

In an ideal world, everyone knows where to find the resources and tools they need to be successful.

We don’t live in that world.

I’m not even sure we can see that world from here. But if we could see it, we’d be seeing it through a portal[1].

One of the most common themes from my conversations with enterprise Power BI customers is that organizations that are successfully building and growing their data cultures have implemented portals where they share the resources, tools, and information that their users need. These mature companies also treat their portal as a true priority – the portal is a key part of their strategy, not an afterthought.

This is why:

In every organization of non-trivial size there are obstacles that keep people from finding and using the resources, information, and data they need.

Much of the time people don’t know what they need, nor do they know what’s available. They don’t know what questions to ask[2], much less know where to go to get the answers. This isn’t their fault – it’s a natural consequence of working in a complex environment that changes over time on many different dimensions.

As I try to do in these accompanying-the-video blog posts I will let the video speak for itself, but there are a few key points I want to emphasize here as well.

  1. You need a place where people can go for all of the resources created and curated by your center of excellence
  2. You need to engage with your community of practice to ensure that you’re providing the resources they need, and not just the resources you think they need
  3. You need to keep directing users to the portal, again and again and again, until it becomes habit and they start to refer their peers

The last point is worth emphasizing and explaining. If community members don’t use the portal, it won’t do what you need it to do, and you won’t get the return you need on your investments.

Users will continue to use traditional “known good” channels to get information – such as sending you an email or IM – if you let them. You need to not let them.


[1] See what I did there?

[2] Even though they will often argue vehemently against this fact.

Data Culture: Motivation and Encouragement

The last post in our ongoing series on building a data culture focused on the importance of community, and on ways organizations can create and promote successful communities around data. But while a community is where the data culture can grow, how can you motivate people to participate, to contribute, and to be part of that growth?

Business intelligence is more about business than it is about technology, and business is really about people. Despite this, many BI professionals focus their learning largely on the technology – not the people.

Do you remember the first time you were involved in a performance tuning and optimization effort? The learning process involved looking at the different parts of the tech stack, and in understanding what each part does, how it does it, and how it relates to all of the other parts. Only when you understood these “internals” could you start looking at applying your knowledge to optimizing a specific query or workload.

You need to know how a system works before you can make it work for you. This is true of human systems too.

This video[1] looks at motivation in the workplace, and how you can motivate the citizen analysts in your data culture to help it – and them – grow and thrive. If you think about these techniques as “performance tuning and optimization” for the human components in a data culture, you’re on the right track.

This image makes a lot more sense after you’ve watched the video – I promise

People are motivated by extrinsic motivators (doing something to get rewards) and intrinsic motivators (doing something because doing it makes them happy)[2], and while it’s important to understand both types of motivators, it’s the intrinsic motivators that are more likely to be interesting – and that’s where we spend the most time in the video.

When you’re done with the video, you probably want to take a moment to read this Psychology Today article, and maybe not stop there. People are complicated, and if you’re working to build a data culture, you need to understand how you can make people more likely to want to participate. Even with an engaged executive sponsor, it can be difficult to drive personal change.

In my personal experience, task identity and task significance are the biggest success factors when motivating people to contribute in a data culture. If someone knows that their work is a vital part of an important strategic effort, and if they know that their work makes other people’s lives better, they’re more likely to go the extra mile, and to willingly change their daily habits. That’s a big deal.


[1] If you’re not old enough to recognize the opening line in the video, please take a moment to appreciate how awesome commercials were in the 1980s.

[2] Yes, I’m oversimplifying.

Data Culture: The Importance of Community

The last two videos  in our series on building a data culture covered different aspects of  how business and IT stakeholders can partner and collaborate to achieve the goals of the data culture. One video focused on the roles and responsibilities of each group, and one focused on the fact that you can’t treat all data as equal. Each of these videos builds on the series introduction, where we presented core concepts about cultures in general, and data culture in particular.

Today’s video takes a closer look at where much of that business/IT collaboration takes place – in a community.

Having a common community space – virtual, physical, or both – where your data culture can thrive is an important factor in determining success. In my work with global enterprise Power BI customers, when I hear about increasing usage and business value, I invariably hear about a vibrant, active community. When I hear about a central BI team or a business group that is struggling, and I ask about a community, I usually hear that this is something they want to do, but never seem to get around to prioritizing.

Community is important.[1]

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A successful data culture lets IT do what IT does well, and enables business to focus on solving their problems themselves… but sometimes folks on both sides of this partnership need help. Where do they find it, and who provides that help?

This is where the community comes in. A successful community brings together people with questions and people with the answer to these questions. A successful community recognizes and motivates people who share their knowledge, and encourages people to increase their own knowledge and to share it as well.

Unfortunately, many organizations overlook this vital aspect of the data culture. It’s not really something IT traditionally owns, and it’s not really something business can run on their own, and sometimes it falls through the cracks[2] because it’s not part of how organizations think about solving problems.

If you’re part of your organization’s journey to build and grow a data culture and you’re not making the progress you want, look more closely at how you’re running your community. If you look online you’ll find lots of resources that can give you inspiration and ideas, anything from community-building ideas for educators[3] to tips for creating a corporate community of practice.


[1] Really important. Really really.

[2] This is a pattern you will likely notice in other complex problem spaces as well: the most interesting challenges come not within a problem domain, but at the overlap or intersection of related problem domains. If you haven’t noticed it already, I suspect you’ll start to notice it now. That’s the value (or curse) of reading the footnotes.

[3] You may be surprised at how many of these tips are applicable to the workplace as well. Or you may not be surprised, since some workplaces feel a lot like middle school sometimes…

Data Culture: Picking Your Battles

Not all data is created equal.

One size does not fit all.

In addition to collaboration and partnership between business and IT, successful data cultures have something  else in common: they recognize the need for both discipline and flexibility, and have clear, consistent criteria and responsibilities that let all stakeholders know what controls apply to what data and applications.

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Today’s video looks at this key fact, and emphasizes this important point: you need to pick your battles[1].

If you try to lock everything down and manage all data and applications rigorously, business users who need more agility will not be able to do their jobs – or more likely they will simply work around your controls. This approach puts you back into the bad old days before there were robust and flexible self-service BI tools – you don’t want this.

If you try to let every user do whatever they want with any data, you’ll quickly find yourself in the “wild west” days – you don’t want that either.

Instead, work with your executive sponsor and key stakeholders from business and IT to understand what requires discipline and control, and what supports flexibility and agility.

One approach will never work for all data – don’t try to make it fit.


[1] The original title of this post and video was “discipline and flexibility” but when the phrase “pick your battles” came out unscripted[2] as I was recording the video, I realized that no other title would be so on-brand for me. And here we are.

[2] In case you were wondering, it’s all unscripted. Every time I edit and watch a recording, I’m surprised. True story.

Data Culture: Roles and Responsibilities

In last week’s post and video we looked at how business intelligence tools have evolved, with each evolution solving one set of problems and introducing another set. The video described how self-service BI tools have enabled business users to work with data in ways that used to require specialized technical skills, freeing up IT to focus on other tasks – but at the same time introducing challenges around oversight, consistency, and control.

And that brings us to today’s video.

The video includes a few different graphics, but for this post I want to highlight this one, which I’ve taken from the Power BI Adoption Framework[1].

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Successful cultures balance freedom and restriction in ways that benefit the culture as a whole. It’s a compromise – no one gets everything they want, but everyone gets the things they need the most.

For a data culture, this typically involves letting IT do the things they do best, and letting business get down to business.

When an organization adopts a managed self-service model for business intelligence[2], the central BI team in IT[3] does the heavy lifting. This means they prepare, cleanse, warehouse, and deliver the biggest and most important[4] data. They deliver the data that would be hard for a business user to create using a self-service tool, and which will be used by a large audience. They do the things that have broad reach, strategic impact, and strategic importance. They create things that need to be correct, consistent, and supported.

And business users do the rest. This is a broad bucket, but it’s a reasonable generalization as well. Business users create their own reports using the IT-managed data sources and data models. And they prepare and use their own data where there is no IT-managed data for a given purpose.

Over time a given application or a given data source may become more or less managed, as the culture adopts, adapts, and improves.

Managed self-service BI isn’t the only way to be successful, but in my experience working with many large Power BI customers it’s the best way and most predictable way. By having clearly defined roles and responsibilities – who does what – moving from either extreme can overcome the problems that that extreme creates, without going too far in the other direction.

Does your organization take this approach?

If it doesn’t today, what will it take to make this change a reality?


[1] Which I have shamelessly stolen from the Power BI Adoption Framework, because it is an awesome graphic and because I love to stand on the shoulders of giants.

[2] Which is the approach most likely to drive short-and long term efficiencies and successes.

[3] Please understand that this is a gross simplification. This “central BI team in IT” may be a single central team for the whole company, it may be a single central team for a specific business unit, or it may be one of dozens of BI teams that are designed to support a distributed global enterprise. This is less about the technology and the culture than it is about organizational structure, so I don’t expect to ever try to tackle this diversity of approaches in this series.

[4] Next week’s video will talk a little more about what data is likely to qualify for this distinction. And since the video is done already, I’m pretty confident to say “next week” this week.

Data Culture: A brief history of business intelligence

Why is a data culture important?

Why does building a data culture in the 2020s involve the challenges and goals that it does?

Why am I publishing in July a video recorded in January?

battleship-389274_1280
BI Application Internals, Circa 1986

The first two questions are probably the easier ones to answer, so I’ll save the third one for last.

For the first question, I’ll refer you to the first post and video in this series, which introduces the key concepts for a data culture.

For the second question, you need to understand how we got to where we are today – how the data and BI technologies we use today evolved over the past decades. And that’s where today’s video[1] comes in. Check out a brief history of business intelligence for context on the problems that a successful data culture needs to solve, and what your starting point might be.

I won’t go into depth here (I spent six months on that video, so darned right I’m not going to spoil it!) but there are basically four phases in this brief history:

  1. The dark ages, also known as “back when I was your age” when there was no BI, and decisions were made based on human knowledge, instinct, and experience
  2. The good old days, when BI solutions were developed by highly skilled BI professionals using complex and difficult tools, and when ETL consultants could charge exorbitant rates[2] without clients blinking an eye
  3. The SSBI era where every business user got up to their elbows in data, and IT wasn’t slowing anyone down any more
  4. Nirvana[3], where IT and business work together as partners, each contributing based on their skills and priorities to common shared goals

And each phase brought (or brings) with it its own challenges:

  1. Dependence on specific individuals with specialized knowledge, slow decisions, and probably giant hair you spent hours sculpting with Aqua Net
  2. Expensive development efforts, long turnaround times for insights, IT becomes a bottleneck
  3. Inconsistent results, untrusted (and untrustworthy) insights, producing misinformed business decisions
  4. Difficulty in aligning business and IT and making the necessary cultural changes… also flannel?

And for that third question, please let me just say that 2020 is kicking my butt in ways I never expected. Between work and family and the global pandemic that’s ravaging the globe, I’ve needed to harshly triage all non-essential work. Back in January I was sure I would publish this video a week late, but still in January. Back on February 24th I made this optimistic comment:

In case you’ve been wondering why my blog and YouTube output has dried up this month, it’s because real life has been kicking my ass. I think I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, so hopefully we’ll be back with regular content before too long. Hopefully.

That was about a week before the coronavirus outbreak at the nursing home down the road from my house hit the news, and it’s all been downhill from there.

I’m tempted to say I again see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m not going to do that. The last time the light turned out to be a train. I will instead say that I’ll do my best to get more blog and video content created and published as consistently as possible and that I appreciate your patience and your support[4].


[1] Today’s video was recorded on January 19th as “take two” that delayed its publishing. Basically I was filming the video at the end of the day when I had planned on publishing it, so I figured it would end up being a week late. Yeah.

[2] This may not be how everyone remembers those times, but this is my blog and my story and I’m sticking with it.

[3] Or Pearl Jam. Maybe Soundgarden. I never really did keep up with grunge, so I’m honestly not sure.

[4] I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, but between Friday evening when I wrote this post and finished editing the video, I have recorded the next two videos in the data culture series, and edited the first of them. Only time will tell if August is kinder to me than recent months have been, but barring unforeseen circumstances you’ll see the next two videos on the next two Monday.

5’ve got all the swords

Power BI turns five years old this week. On July 24, 2015 Microsoft announced the general availability of Power BI, a new cloud service for self-service business intelligence.

In the five years since then Power BI has evolved to be much more than a self-service tool. Power BI today includes capabilities for self-service and enterprise BI, adding data preparation, information management, machine learning and more, while still including powerful tools for data visualization and reporting.

Today[1] the Power BI team at Microsoft is commemorating this milestone by saying thank you.

PowerBI_5YearAnni_1584x396-04-1024x256

Even though I’m on the Power BI team at Microsoft, this is my personal blog, and I wanted to say thank you as well. So I put together a short video that includes five of my favorite things:

  1. Power BI
  2. Swords
  3. Bad jokes
  4. My awesome new “5’ve got the Power BI” t-shirt
  5. Worse jokes[2]

The one thing I couldn’t include is all of you.

Thanks for the comments and feedback on the blog and the videos, and thanks even more for helping make Power BI what it is today.

 


[1] Yes, I know today is July 23rd here in North America, but by commemorating this milestone today we can be more inclusive for folks in parts of the world where it’s already the weekend.

[2] There is one joke in the video that I suspect I am the only person who will understand enough to laugh at it. If you get it please tell me so I don’t feel so alone.

Foster Kittens and Managed Self-Service BI

My family is a foster family for cats and kittens from the cat shelter where we’ve adopted some of our own cats. Usually a litter will stay with us for a month or two, but it depends on the kittens themselves, and on external factors.

While the kittens are with us, it’s our responsibility to help them grow, both physically and socially. The experts at the shelter are always available if we need help, but for the most part we have the knowledge and tools we need to be successful. In many cases we’re their first real exposure to humans, and we can prepare them to be loving and playful members of a family. Just not our family.

Once the kittens are ready to be adopted, we take them to the shelter, where they will be carefully matched with their forever family. This last part is important – it’s hard enough to let go, and knowing that each of them will find a good home is what makes it possible.

It’s really the best of both worlds – kind of like managed self-service BI with Power BI.[1]

 

Not unlike fostering kittens, managed self-service BI can be the best of both worlds. As an analyst working in Power BI, you can often pick up projects when the scope is still small and manageable, and when you can have fun playing around with the data and seeing what it’s likely to become.

I’m emphasizing the “managed” in managed self-service BI, because it’s best to not be completely on your own. Having someone backing you up, someone with the expertise and resources to get you through challenging spots with a helping hand, is just as important with BI as it is with kittens. An author on his own may make avoidable mistakes with long-term consequences, but a center of excellence or community of practice can provide training up front, and assistance along the way so the finished self-service solution is ready to grow up – and growing up is an important goal.

Just as my family includes our adult cats, that analyst working in Power BI has a day job. If we kept each litter of kittens we foster, things would soon become messy and unmanageable. If an analyst retained ownership of every Power BI solution he developed, he would struggle to stay on top of his core priorities.

Being able to hand off a self-service solution to a central BI team is what gives this story a happy ending. The BI team can give the analyst’s work the long-term home it deserves, and the analyst can get back to his job… while also keeping an eye open for the next self-service BI challenge to come along and steal his heart.

Of all the kittens I have loved, I miss Tiny the most.
Your head. I will bite it now.[2]
If you’re interested in learning more about the shelter where we volunteer, please visit the Meow Cat Rescue web site. Please also consider donating while you’re there – the global pandemic is making it harder for their awesome staff and volunteers to do what they do, and kitten season is upon us. If you appreciate the BI Polar blog and its companion YouTube channel, there’s no better way to say thank you than to donate to Meow. Even a small donation will help.


[1] I hope you saw that one coming

[2] This footage of Tiny attacking my head didn’t fit into the Power Kittens video, but I shared it on Twitter because it was just too cute to not share.

Being a Program Manager at Microsoft

My awesome friend Christopher also works at Microsoft, but his career and mine have taken different paths since we joined. Here we are together back in 2008, before either one of us worked at Microsoft. He’s the one not wearing a Manowar t-shirt.

gateslunch1
No, no, the other one.

Out backgrounds are remarkably similar. We each spent years before joining Microsoft as Microsoft Certified Trainers, with an emphasis on software development rather than systems administration. We each became involved in the MCT community, and in the broader technical community, and to one extent or another this helped us find our first positions at Microsoft.

These days Christopher is working with student developers – I’ve seen him tweeting a lot recently about Django on Twitch, which probably means that he’s still teaching people about software development… or may be watching Quentin Tarantino movies while drinking too much coffee. Honestly, either one is possible.

Anyway… Christopher reached out to me last month and asked if I’d be interested in talking to college students about to graduate about what it’s like being a program manager at Microsoft. I said yes[1], then I said this:

I’ll let the video speak for itself. I tell my story for the first 15 minutes or so, and around the 14:50 mark I talk with Will Thompson and Tessa Hurr from the Power BI team and ask them to share their experiences as well. But there are a few things that I want to add that didn’t really fit well into the video.

First of all, every team has a need for many types of program managers. I’ve blogged about diversity enough that you probably know how I feel about the value of diverse teams, and this applies to PM teams at Microsoft as well. Since this video is targeted at college students and recent college graduates, I’d like to focus briefly on the career diversity dimension.

What does “career diversity dimension” mean? Looking at most PM teams I see program managers falling into three broad groups:

  1. New to career – program managers who are starting their careers after college, or after switching from a non-IT discipline.[2]
  2. Industry hires – program managers who are new to Microsoft, but who have an established career in a related field.[3] This is often someone who has been a consultant, developer or administrator who works hands-on with Microsoft or competitive tools and technologies.
  3. Veterans – program managers who have been at Microsoft long enough to succeed a few times, fail a few times, and understand what PM success can look like on multiple teams.[4]

Reading this list it may be easy to think that there is a progression of value implied, but this is not the case. A successful team will find ways to get from each group the things that only they can contribute. A PM in one group will be able to see things and do things that a PM in other groups will not, and an experienced team leader will be able to direct each PM to the problems that they are best suited to solve, and can add the most value.

The second thing I wanted to add to the video is that each team is different. I said this in the video, but I want to elaborate here. Each team will have its own culture, and some teams will be a better fit than others for a given PM. I’ve worked on multiple teams where I didn’t think I was contributing effectively, or where I felt that my contributions weren’t valued[5]. At one point this culture mismatch almost led me to leave Microsoft, but with the support of my manager at the time I instead found another team in another org where I could thrive.

And this leads me to the the final point I wanted to add: Microsoft is huge. I’ve been a PM at Microsoft since October 2008, but I’ve had 4 or 5 major career changes since then, with very different responsibilities after each change, requiring very different contributions from me.

When I was interviewing for my first position in 2008, the hiring manager asked me why I wanted to work for Microsoft. I already had a successful career as a data warehousing and ETL consultant, and becoming a Microsoft employee would include a reduction in income, at least in the short term. Why give up what I’d built?

I hadn’t expected this question, and my answer was authentic and unscripted, and I’ve thought a lot about it over the past 11+ years. I told him that I wanted to join Microsoft because Microsoft had bigger and more challenging problems to solve than I would ever see as a consultant, and would never run out of new problems for me to help solve. If I joined Microsoft, I would never be bored.

I wanted to join Microsoft because Microsoft had bigger and more challenging problems to solve than I would ever see as a consultant, and would never run out of new problems for me to help solve. If I joined Microsoft, I would never be bored.

And I was right.

If you’re a PM at Microsoft, please share your thoughts and experiences.

If you’re thinking about becoming a PM at Microsoft, please share your questions.

If you’ve joined Microsoft as a PM after watching this video and reading this blog, please send me an email, because I would love to say hi.


[1] It’s a good thing he asked when he did. I haven’t had a haircut since late February, and I don’t know when I’ll let anyone point a camera at my head again…

[2] This was kind of me when I first applied for a position at Microsoft in the 90s, although I already had a few years’ experience. I was not hired.

[3] This was me in 2008 when I was hired.

[4] This is me in 2020. I tend to talk about the successes more, but it’s the failures I think about the most, and where I learned the most along the way. Success is awesome, but it’s a lousy teacher.

[5] Yes, this sucked as much as you could imagine.