focus Scoping Data Warehouse InitiativesData warehousing is a complex operation. From start to finish (if there is a finish), project teams are faced with many challenges. In all phases of the lifecycle, there are opportunities for derailment. The best way to mitigate potential issues and stay on time and within budget is to carefully define and manage scope. Managing scope can be an ongoing struggle (especially if requirements are not clearly defined or justified). While this is really a PM101-type of topic, I feel there are some fine points in a DW/BI environment that are not mentioned enough.

Consider the following:

Programs verses projects

I won’t get into a deep PM discussion here, but it is important to point out that data warehousing (or business intelligence, master data management, etc.) initiatives should be thought of as programs and not projects. This mindset will help in scoping.

A program (which might also be called a “project portfolio” in some circles) is basically just a set of related projects. With a program, the emphasis is on organizing, prioritizing, and allocating resources to the right projects. Program scope is more strategic, and answers long-term questions about what type of value the organization hopes to achieve from the initiative.

A project, on the other hand, is much more specific — with a set number of deliverables and goals that have a high immediate impact. The scope at the project level is therefore more tactical in nature: high impact, fast delivery. Be aware that some projects may never be given the green light (for example, if there is a low business impact or if there is a low feasibility rating because of data source or data quality complications).

What I find odd is that organizations still choose to tackle immense data warehousing initiatives in one or two shots, trying to deliver everything at once over a period of 18 or more months. This is the wrong approach (here’s why). Break this large initiative into individual projects and try to deliver functionality every 6 to 8 weeks.

The business process

The best way to break down data warehousing programs into high-impact projects is along business process lines. A business process, as defined here, is:

The complete response that a business makes to an event. A business process entails the execution of a sequence of one or more process steps. It has a clearly defined deliverable or outcome. A Business Process is defined by the business event that triggers the process, the inputs and outputs, all the operational steps required to produce the output, the sequential relationship between the process steps, the business decisions that are part of the event response, and the flow of material and/or information between process steps.

Some example of the above: inventory tracking, Internet sales, retail sales, marketing, tax assessment, tax collection, pitching, batting.

In any data warehousing environment, you can expect to have several business processes to model. Each business process you tackle will have elements touching upon different aspects of the data warehouse, including infrastructure, middleware, data modeling, ETL, business logic development, presentation elements, and so on. If you scope each project to the business process, you can deliver complete solutions in the shortest amount of time. (It should be obvious that the very first business process you implement will take the longest, as the team works out the core infrastructure. Most of this infrastructure will be reused by other business processes.)

Avoid scoping to a data source

Do not fall into the trap of scoping to a data source. Scoping to a data source is almost guaranteed to deliver mediocre outcomes. These projects typically include many unfinished or inadequate business processes all delivered at once some time in the distant future and long after the excitement over the initiative has subsided.

While it is true that only one or two data sources might exist in some organizations, it is not true that inventory, customers, sales, procurement, shipping, and other business processes need to be taken on at once. Create a single project for each business process, prioritize based on impact and feasibility, and then badabing badaboom, you deliver. Next.

Along the same lines, do not adjust your scope if the data source is unavailable, uncooperative, or lacking in quality. Instead, bring the fight to the data source (here is where a good, preferable C-Leveled, business sponsor can come in handy) and set things right. This is obviously a project risk, and also an organizational risk. If you are having problems extracting inventory data then maybe its time to put down your data warehousing gloves and get a new inventory system.

Last thoughts

Scoping the data warehouse is a difficult problem. Troubles start early on with the initial idea, it moves on through requirement gathering, and finally into the development phase of the lifecycle. There is not a lot of good advice in this area for data warehousing (if you happen to know of a good source, please send me a link or title). But I do find that if you work towards business processes, think in terms of programs and projects, and avoid the data source trap, scoping decisions will settle into the real needs of the business.