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Friday, September 11, 2009

BI and the Tools of Diplomacy: Language & Communciation

In my last post I made a case for comparing the role of the Business Analyst in general technical projects to that of a diplomat carefully negotiating the interactions between the "nations" of business and technology. For this post I had planned to take that comparison to its logical next step and consider a variety of tools & techniques of traditional diplomacy and apply them to a typical Business Intelligence practice. In the interest of everyone's time I will split up this discussion among several posts, starting with what I consider the single most important tool in the practice of diplomacy: language and communication.

By far the biggest barrier between nations has nothing to do with physical separations -- political borders, distance or even geographic features like deserts, mountains, rivers and seas. For example, Australia, the UK and the United States are phsyically divided from each other by thousands of miles of open ocean, yet they are some of the best friends among the international community. I argue that the single most difficult impediment between nations is language and open communication. How can two people possibly be friends if they don't talk to each other? And what's the point of talking if they can't understand what the other is even saying?

Let's look at language first. A good example in Business Intelligence projects is financial reporting. The world of finance has a rich and well-established vocabulary of terms that have very specific and often complex meanings and implications for a business user, yet may have a completely different meaning, if any, to the technologist. Consider the two most basic of these financial terms: Debit and Credit. What these terms represent in a business context is the complex system of balance sheet accounting that is fundamental to all modern businesses but is also, well, foreign to most technologists.

The most rudimentary, bare minimum approach to crossing this barrier is the use of a simple dictionary or phrasebook - so that at the very least, the technologist will know how to find her way to the metaphorical bathroom in the business world. Of course, in the long run, a phrasebook definition of "Debit" will be of little help. The technologist will forget to multiply a "debit" by -1 when the business user expects her to, and the business user will end up the butt of a Dilbert cartoon about using or not using SOAP. A better way is to teach the whole language, not just piecemeal phrases, with the end goal of achieving a level of proficiency that will allow the technologist and the business user to have a meaningful conversation about complex issues that are important to each side.

The takeaway for your BI practice? Establish some way for each side to learn the other side's fundamental professional terminology and the concepts behind the language. Imagine the quality of conversations we would have if technologists were to learn the basics of Balance Sheet Accounting, or if the business users could learn the concepts of star schema design. When designing the instruction, remember that the detail needn't be exhaustive - the point is to encourage a meaningful conversation, so that the business user can understand the importance of conformed dimensions and the technologist knows the difference between a debit and a credit.

A good, low-impact, "Web 2.0" approach to encouraging this conversation would be to set up a company Wiki so that representatives from each side can contribute and respond to content (even by refering to existing content available elsewhere) that explains their fundamental professional terminology and the underlying concepts. Even better would be examples to illustrate how these concepts apply to their organization's operations.

Having a common language is important, but we need to use it too: Establishing active and effective paths of communication between nations is a cornerstone of a healthy relationship. Other tools of diplomacy - standards, summits, treaties, even espionage - can all be considered ways of enriching the communication between nations. I will focus on these tools in my next post.

Until then, I'd like to hear your thoughts. Do you have any other suggestions or better, good examples of successful strategies in your BI practice for breaking the barrier of language?


Market Survey said...

Interesting text. You have a nice blog. Keep it up!

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