Choosing the Right BI Partner

Having worked as a Senior Consultant for Thorogood Associates and Principal Consultant at Coeo, I feel very qualified to write this guide to help you when selecting a new BI partner.  I worked as a consultant for a combination of about 6 years and have worked in and around BI for over 15 years. During my consultancy time I have worked worth with over 100 companies and among the engagements around 20 green field projects. The majority of these companies selected to work with us because of a vendor recommendation or a personal connection with existing staff. The majority of these companies engaged before ever meeting the consultants that would be working with them or ever investigating the suitability of the partner. This is not to say that the engagements didn’t work, they often did, but I have often questioned customers selection criteria and wondered if there were not cheaper/better ways for them to approach their BI needs. For example would you buy a new car without a test drive first? Would you employ a BI developer or architect without an interview? If the answer is no to both then this blog may be of some use to  you. I now sit on the “other side of the fence” and I think there are many things worth considering before signing up with a BI partner, and a test drive might well be one of those!

Top 5 things to consider when selecting your BI partner:

1. Are they a certified partner to your chosen, or preferred technology vendor(s)?

There is little point talking with non-certified partners, but understanding the partner process your potential vendor uses is also important. For example anyone and everyone can become a Microsoft partner, easily. But to become a silver or gold BI partner requires a lot of important steps to be completed by the vendor.Question the website graphics and check vendor lists for up-to-date information and the steps required to achieve the advertised status.

If you havent decided on a technology or vendor then make sure your potential BI partner is certified to multiple vendors or none at all with experience of vendor selection processes. Alternatively, and ideally, select two potential partners per potential vendor and make this part of your vendor selection process.

Beware vendor recommendations as the engagement, at this point, with vendors is sales led. Are they the best people to recommend a partner to you?

2. What are their staff credentials, experience (ideally in your industry), and certifications?

This should be current, an MCDBA in SQL 2005 is not relevant. It should also be relevant to your requirements, Prince 2 certifications when you will provide your own project management matters little. Utilise LinkedIn as it is a fantastic way to validate some of the key people at your potential partner. Very early on in the process ask about the BI team and do some research, later in the process meet these people! Investigate industry experts in BI and often talking to them in open groups on Twitter or LinkedIn, can help get recommendations or confirm your thoughts on the potential partners. Look to relevant industry events and look for sponsorship and lead technical experts sharing their knowledge with everyone. Finally asking to speak to similar companies they have worked with and/or researching the case studies is also a valid and useful approach.

Ultimately treat this review as you would an interview for BI specialists. Most companies, around 90%, I have worked with all, ultimately, want to create their own internal BI competancy. To that end your choice of partner is about extending or even starting your own BI team for your company. Finding a partner that has experience doing this and have approaches for aiding this is also important. Meeting with, interviewing and validating these people is just common sense.

3. Does their engagement model fit to your requirements?

In my opinion it should be flexible, not cookie cutter BS that you could probably find on slideshare. Critically you should know your requirements and, if knowledge transfer is important, then how does the partner manage this or build it into their process. Does your business have ever changing requirements and priorities, can this partner support agile, and I dont mean they do stand ups and split work into sprints, true agile is not not just about this and validating their agile certifications is also important, if, agile is important to your business/department.

Do they force project management upon you? Do they charge for this or is it wrapped up as part of the price, day rate etc… Not that PM is bad, I think it hugely important and useful on projects. All partners should be quizzed about how they deliver the capabilities a normal PM function would bring. BUT this should be inline with your expecations and preferred way of working.

4. Do they have recent, reference-able and relevant examples of working on these kind of projects before?

This should include any key areas important to your business, i.e Master Data or data quality. Perhaps similar experience in helping transitioning you to your own BI team, in the fullness of time. Can you talk with their previous customers? If yes then I like to talk to the business analyst or BI team lead, rather than a PM. Talking to a key business user is also interesting if your choice is linked to a specific vendor.

5. How do they manage risk?

This is a broad area and difficult to gauge. But there are some key areas to think about during your selection process. Key man dependency – how does the partner make sure that if their star consultant leaves how does that affect your project and deadlines? Changing requirements – what are the processes and how do they manage the reality of changing requirements – no BI project EVER fits a static, waterfall approach. If your partners talk about being able to manage this but at extra cost, close the conversation immediately. These are best practice areas that all partners should include as part of their general way of working.

Apart from these areas to consider, what’s absolutely key is understanding what you want to deliver for your business and what the potential return or value is to that business. If at least one of these things are not clear then it is not time to engage with a third party, unless, perhaps they have good experience with these stages of work and can provide management consultancy to help build that initial business case; in my experience not many can do this from scratch and you probably need a less technical partner than the typical BI partners. But I don’t mean you have to have a completed business case or a full technical specification but you need some idea and definitely buy in from your business stakeholders.

Costs

Up front it is more than ok to ask for rate cards. If the partner doesnt work that way then ask for example costs of previous projects with similar requirements and deadlines; or ask for their average rate in their last financial year, or last two BI projects, trust me they ALL know this information. It is critical to make sure, for both you and the partner, that you are in the right ballpark right from the off. At an early stage it is completely ok for these costs to be indicative and you shouldnt start budgeting around these numbers, all good proposal stages require a more accurate assesment of need to identify more accurate costs. At an early stage it is also important to think about the cost approach, time and materials or a fixed approach. In my experience an indicative/umbrella budget with a T&M proposal gives you the best price and is the most flexible way to work with a partner. Fixed prices can work but due to the risk and nature of these engagements expect paying for a hefty upfront design stage and the partner (rightly) adding a % on top of normal costs to mitigate potential slippage/risk.

Top 3 Actions to complete whilst selecting the right partner:

1. Meet the team – and not just you, include key members of your internal tech stakeholders and potential internal delivery team members. DON’T just meet sales, or technical pre-sales.

2. See working examples of their work, relevant to yours – ideally they may want to run a mini POC with your data (perhaps with vendor supported funding)

3. Constantly review your requirements, for the project and business, against what you are learning about the partner.  Have your internal stakeholders be part of these reviews.

Time

This process should take as long as it needs, but match the length of time with size of the project and complexity of your requirements. I have found that evn a small piece of work this process can take as long as a multiple month green field project. Critically the time this process takes is up to you and should NEVER be dictated by your potential partners. Certainly question the lead time required by the potential partner to be available to start initiation or development kick off BUT dont be driven by this. Your project can wait a month for the right partner, it has probably waited a lot longer prior to this!

In Summary…

This process is a difficult one filled with the usual mix of technical review, emotional and emphatic feelings. The more people you get involved in this process, at relevant times, the better. If you are forming a BICC have your most important business stakeholders part of the process. If you or someone in your IT team knows of a good BI person (validate this) then have them talk about experiences and recommendations for BI partners. Finally I have seen matching your company size, or project size with a partner size. IMG Group (now Hitachi) always seem to work well with larger companies, more mature in BI, than say Coeo who worked much better with less BI mature companies, often of a smaller size.

I do have a spreadsheet that I used recently for vendor selection which I am more than happy to share, please comment with your details and I will email it over. I am also happy to help, where I can with my experience. Good BI people are close knit bunch in the UK and I am more than happy to share my experience and recommendations, for what it is worth to you! 🙂

And as always thank you for reading, I hope this is of some help!

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