Requirements for BI solutions

A recurrent question that I received after a conferences or during a course sounds really simple but is rather complex to answer: How do you write specifications for Business Intelligence solutions? That will be the starting point of this series of four blog posts about specifications, requirements, work-items and test-cases.

The methodology that I advocate is very business focused. We need to understand business processes, objectives, analytic requirements and associated potential business impact, and eventually project success criteria.

A global Business Requirements deliverable typically covers the following topics: critical business and analytic description including semantic, existing systems and data to support the capabilities required, initial project success criteria, and key issues/risks with tactical and strategic recommendations.

Business Process to be analyzed

Keep in mind that the requirements are not there to define the solution but to explicit the problem. Following this idea, don’t try to model by yourself a report, but describe your business process(es) and your analytical needs. Don’t ask for a report but describe the level of maturity of your end-users and what they will do the data/information. Keep in mind that a BI solution could go further than a data warehouse, a cube or a report but can also be trainings, coaching/support and even new staff members.

I don’t care about the format of the requirements. It could be written on any media that will be readable and shareable in the company. But, keep in mind that implementers should be able to read this document from A to Z. Avoid to write documentation based on hyperlinks as the main mechanism to go from one section to another. It’s great to have hyperlinks to facilitate navigation on some parts of the document, but keep in mind that at any moment they need to be sure about what has been read and what has not been. Based, on this we do not recommend to write your requirements as a website but better on a word document.

Strictly avoid UML or E/R schemas (or any software related notation). Firstly, the level of expertise, with the notation, of each document’s reader/writer will vary, resulting in different and incorrect interpretations of a same schema. Some readers/writers will understands some details, some will not. Keep also in mind that these notations are usually designed to build low level specifications. BI Requirements must stay at the higher level. Last but not least requirements will be validated by stakeholders do you suppose that your CxO is understanding the E/R notation?

A draw is more explicit than a paragraph” is a sentence that I valuate. But I usually add that “a draw without explanations has no value”. If you put some schemas or drawing be sure that they don’t provide information that are not explicitly written in the paragraphs surrounding them. As a guideline, keep in mind that I’ll not read the schemas and draws. They will just be used to double-check my own understanding. Do the same!

The first section of your document should be a large introduction to your business. We’re dealing with BI, we can’t be expert of each process of the company so you need to provide us enough information about the processes without having to read pages of details. The first section deals with this idea: a description of the business process to be analyzed with the BI solution.

This section of the document should explain the Business Process that you want to analyze through Business Intelligence. I just put the stress, I’m not interested, at this step, to know “how you’ll analyze” but I’m focused on “What will be analyzed”. The existing Business Process generating data that we’ll transform to provide some information that will be analyzed.

If you want to analyze the relation between the customers’ budget and the sales then I’m expecting that you describe “how customers are buying things with your website”, “how customers are buying in your shops” and “how we get information about their budget”. In other words, what are the different activities of the Business processes “Internet Sales” and “Shop Sales” including especially but not exclusively the activities “CRM” and “Order”.

This is really a Business Processes description that I’m expecting and not an application process. At this moment, information about software supporting the business processes are more a distraction than really helpful.

This part of the document is critical, the more correct and exhaustive this part will be, the faster we’ll be able to start the development.

Define the terms

Vocabulary or semantic is something essential in Data Modelling and so Business Intelligence. You need to provide a definition of terms that are used in the Business Processes described previously.

This vocabulary will be also reused in the resulting BI Solution. So if you’re using the word “Customer” in your requirement we’ll use “Customer” and do not expect “Client” in the implementation.

Avoid usage of synonyms. It’s probably a better writing style to make usage of them, but it’s also ambiguous. If a “Customer” and a “Client” have the same meanings, choose one of them and use it until the end of the document. I’m not expecting a Goncourd or Nobel price of literature but clear business requirements.

Be explicit about your definition. I don’t expect and are not interested by a list of items with two words standing for a definition. Give us a context and rules to apply to validate your vocabulary.

Example: Define “customer” for a hotel chain

Possibilities include:

  • A customer is someone who makes a reservation
  • A customer is someone who has had at least one stay at a hotel
  • A customer may be a business or individual who rents a hotel facility
  • A customer is someone who signs up for the hotel loyalty program

Candidate definition:

A customer is an individual, group, or business who has received one or more hotel services, including hotel stays, facility rentals, and/or other additional hotel services, such as spa services. Hotel services may or may not have been paid for by the customer. A customer does not have to complete a hotel stay to be considered a customer.”

It’s usually easier to understand and assimilate if the definitions are given in-text with the business process description. I do not recommend a dictionary or glossary disconnected of the business process description. It’s usually difficult to maintain and difficult to read.

Often, I’m receiving documents where the semantic in the drawings and the text is not the aligned. It’s really confusing. Even if you’re copy-pasting schemas from other documents ensure that the semantic is the same than in other parts of your document. If, for editorial reasons, you can’t update the text on the drawings then clearly state that the terminology is not identical and give clear correspondences.

Analytics targets

In the second section of the document, we’re dealing with the analytics that should be conducted on top of the previously described Business Processes.

The topic is not only what we want to analyze but also about the skills of the users. The more-skilled the users are, the more degree of freedom we’ll offer. But if your users have absolutely no IT knowledge and no time, we’ll probably deliver a report in their mailbox.

 Users: skills, mobility and audience

Typically, users will fall into one of three categories in relation to the timeliness of data required:

  • Report broadcasts and scheduling: Many BI users won’t require real-time data access. For example, the marketing department might rely on weekly sales reports to gauge the effectiveness of brand strategies and specific marketing campaigns over a significant period of time. Daily, or real-time reports – such as transaction level reports – would provide too much detail. The strength of BI in this instance is in its ability to track and identifying trends over time, while simultaneously allowing users to connect shifts in the data to real-life events (marketing campaigns) to support strategy development.
  • Alerts: In some instances, certain user groups won’t need to actively monitor business activities, but just the ability to be alerted to abnormal or unacceptable circumstances – when key metrics fall outside predefined parameters. For example, the accounts payable team don’t need constant data access to perform their daily tasks. However, if an invoice is set to pass its payment deadline, an alert can grab attention to ensure that it’s processed in a timely manner.
  • On-demand data access: Some users will require the ability to directly access and search real-time, or near real-time, operational data and reports, as well as perform ad-hoc queries. For example, BI users coordinating the intersection of ‘just in time’ manufacturing and supply chain operations would demand the ability to access, analyze and act on up-to-the-minute reports and data to ensure the timely delivery of stock from the warehouse, to transport operators, and to retail outlets.

Be sure to give a correct overview in terms of skills, mobility and point-in-time of the users that will use the solution. It’s expected that you’ve more than one type of users. Different categories of users will access different artefacts of the solution.

Analytics needs

Articulate your reflection in terms of question that will be asked. Don’t stop on the first question. If users tell you that they want to “Monitor Quality”, go further ask them to explain how they will define “Quality”. Is the difference between two measures in percentage or absolute value? Ask them what they will effectively monitoring? Will they check if the quality improves? Do they want to receive alerts when the quality decrease? Is just one measure bellow the expectation enough to ring the bell of the alerts?

It happens that users have no idea for these questions. They just want the raw data. In such case, they also ask to be able to define a lot of parameters by themselves. It’s a current and normal situation. It probably means that you need to add a phase of data discovery in your business intelligence path. Self-Service BI is in the BI Toolset to provide some data discovery features to end-users.

You don’t need to be especially exhaustive in the definition of the analytics needs. BI models have the ability to always answer to a family of question and not a unique question. So if you’ve forgotten an analysis in your requirements, you’ve a probability that you’ll still be able to answer this question with existing models. But it’s only a probability, other families of analytic needs will require different models. So it’s probably better to describe non-similar needs.

Business Impact

The last part of the document is optional. We can build a solution without it. Anyway, I’ll still be interested and will surely read it in detail. With this section, I’ll probably provide a better solution and share your business objectives.

This part of the document is more important for the stakeholders to have some support when requesting a budget. It explains what are the expected return on investment and especially how do you think they will be achieved. What are the changes in the business processes that you’ll support with this new application? How these information needs map to the business goals?

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