The Last Mile Problem and Business Intelligence

Jul 18, 2012

The most expensive piece in a telecommunications grid is not the huge data pipes that make up national and international data networks, or even the incredibly specialized switching equipment that control the staggering amount of data which moves across these networks, or even the back-office billing systems that somehow tally the charges for all this data. In each of these cases, economies of scale bring the per-user price of these components into a manageable cost structure. No, the most expensive and problematic aspect of the whole system is what is called the 'Last Mile', that critical connection from the telecom switch to the consumer's home or place of business. This is pure infrastructure, and involves digging up streets, running wires, and working with customers one at a time. There are no economies of scale and every possible avenue to more efficiently make this connection has been explored. My favorite examples of the innovative solutions developed to solve the 'Last Mile' problem when I worked in the telecom field were: first, a company in the 90's that built robots which would crawl through sewer lines to run telecom cable to access points within a customer premise and another which used free-space optical beams to send information to receivers on customer rooftops, a solution with obvious challenges during periods when the environment is not cooperative, for example, rain and fog!

So how does this 'Last Mile' problem in telecom relate to Business Intelligence? I would argue the same connection problem exists between the BI solution (including the data warehouse, the BI infrastructure and presentation tools, the cubes and reports) and the end user. It has struck me that there are so many amazing BI solutions out there that provide so many potentially game-changing capabilities for their users but which still, well, fail. They fail to make an impact, fail in their adoption by business users, and fail to meet the rosy expectations of their institutional sponsors. In my experience, the most common reason for this is the inability to effectively bridge the 'Last Mile' of BI solution delivery, that is, to make the connection from the infrastructure of the solution to its end users. Some of these solutions have amazing capabilities, just like those telecom networks, but are worthless if they cannot get their content into the hands of their end users for those users to make it part of the way they do business.

So, having drawn this parallel, what insights to achieve success can be gained for BI solutions by looking at it in this light?

I think the fundamental one is to emphasize the importance of considering the BI 'Last Mile' into the overall design of the BI solution. It is always tempting to adopt the adage from the movie 'Field of Dreams' - "If you build it, they will come!". But experience shows that they may not come, no matter how wonderfully it is built. The users of a BI implementation and what they are capable of must be considered from the outset. A realistic assessment must be made of what they will need to be able to adopt the capabilities being rolled out.

Secondly, solutions to both of these problems are difficult to scale. The analogy to the telecom guy climbing a pole or digging a ditch is the one-on-one communication that has to take place to get BI users on board and invested in the solution. How do you bring along novice users to step up to what can be a daunting new challenge? How do you convince reporting users who have adapted to existing, less-capable but known solutions that they should extend the effort to learn a new system? How do you show everyone involved that the BI solution will help them, and is not just something imposed on them from upper management? This involves careful design of the user-facing artifacts of the BI system, but also careful documentation and training. When it comes right down to it, you really have to sell the solution to the user community. In our consulting practice, we have found that one of the best ways to engage and motivate new users of a system is to take reporting problems that they struggle with and solve them as sample problems in a training session. This obviously requires an individualized approach to training, tailored not just for a specific customer but for a particular set of users within an organization. But the enthusiasm that this engenders and the system buy-in that comes from the demonstration of the system's capabilities in a well-understood domain makes it worth the effort. Even when solving these problems requires advanced skills with the tool, skills users might not totally understand, it is a concrete demonstration that the time and effort needed to learn the system will have a meaningful payback.

And the final insight is the stark reality that having a flawed plan or no plan at all is going to be fatal to the success of the whole system, no matter how remarkable the technical solution or infrastructure underlying it may be.

The 'Last Mile' problem applied to the BI world is more insidious and more likely to be overlooked than the physical 'Last Mile' problem in the telecom world. With all its thorniness, it is starkly obvious that some solution is necessary to bridge the physical gap from switch to home or office. However, it is far easier to delude oneself that the BI baseball field needs only to be constructed in an Iowa cornfield and that users will emerge like ghostly Chicago White Sox and start running down fly balls, or rather discovering business insights from the BI solution. With all due respect to Kevin Costner, that just isn't likely to happen.