They come in all shapes and sizes. They come from all departments and disciplines. They mine information looking for veins of business intelligence. They ride alone, sharing the occasional nugget of insight, market opportunity, revenue source or profitability. They have wonderful visions, great-sounding objectives but little structure. They're the BI Cowboys, and they ride the range in every organization.

The truth is that BI activities occur in companies with or without BI programs. In fact, business people have been attempting to analyze activities, processes and results since the days of the Old West.

In some companies, analyzing data for the purposes of deriving BI has been the job of a select group of people with specific goals and objectives. In other companies, that responsibility has been assigned to a research or development group with few goals, and perhaps nebulous goals at that. And in still other companies, there's a shared belief that everyone should strive to make the organization information-centric, helping to move it toward strategic goals. This can lead to very formalized BI programs and processes. But if information-centric companies don't count strategic goals as part of the information they share before they start researching and analyzing, the results can be chaotic.

While all companies have BI Cowboys, the companies that breed them most prolifically tend to lean toward information centricity while having few, if any, BI processes in place. This happens most frequently within carriers that employ information starved actuaries, mathematicians, statisticians and other knowledge workers in pricing, rating, customer relations, marketing, IT or product development.

In such organizations, the most common complaints run along these lines:

   * "We never know what studies he's done. So, we find ourselves duplicating efforts."

   * "We don't know what data she pulled for analysis, or the parameters of her analysis, so we don't know how to duplicate or evaluate her results."

   * "Three people did the same analysis and came up with completely different results."

   * "Reports like the ones we want have been run in the past, but we don't know where to find them or how to run them again."

   * "We aren't sure what information we should be looking at, when it exists, where it came from or what reports were run recently."

The companies that employ BI most effectively are the ones that do two things: First, they corral their BI Cowboys, giving them specific BI jobs, clearly defined responsibilities and just enough rope to keep them creatively motivated. Second, they give them the tools to do the job and the responsibility to adapt the tools to emerging needs and opportunities. Those same companies tend to be the ones that have identified information as a strategic asset. They've made and clearly communicated their intention to make their organizations information centric. They've put programs and processes in place to ensure efficient and effective use of information across the enterprise. And they've made BI-empirical data and appropriate responses to it-an aspect of every employee's daily activities.

At the operational level, those companies also recognize the work of the BI Cowboy for what it is: research. They validate and duplicate the findings of the BI Cowboy before adopting the findings company-wide. They make sure reports are being run against the correct data in a permanent data set. They perform rigorous testing to ensure reported figures are verified and filtered with appropriate criteria that are obvious to anyone reading the reports. And they apply appropriate security, access and distribution settings to the reports. By doing all those things, companies gain from the knowledge and insights uncovered by their BI Cowboys, mitigating the distrust and disbelief in the numbers they come up with.

In that context then, and in the long run, most companies benefit from BI Cowboys. In the proper structure and with the proper management, the BI Cowboys innovate. Their instincts compel them to investigate hunches and their questions lead to revelations that often spawn new and better ways of doing things. They rustle information the company can use to improve marketing, pricing, product development, customer service and more. Most important, they create environments in which seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.

Aviva Phillips is SVP, Insurance Products, at Yodil, a provider of business intelligence, management and operational reporting and data analytics.

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