Affiliated with:

Building Valuable Pilot Projects in BI and Analytics

image 108

A pilot or prototype for business intelligence or analytics provides an opportunity to demonstrate success, value, and proficiency.  The success of a pilot project is dependent upon several key characteristics.

A pilot/prototype project is the most effective way to gain support, endorsement, and funding business intelligence and analytics efforts.  It provides an opportunity to demonstrate success, value, and proficiency.  Yet, the success of a pilot project is dependent upon several key characteristics.

It is important to understand what a successful pilot/prototype project for Business Intelligence (BI) and analytics would look like, define what success means, and outline some of the key characteristics required.

Pilot Goals

Pilot projects for BI/analytics are built to gain the support, endorsement, and funding to create full solutions.  Thus, it is important to ensure that pilot projects remain focused on the value and goals that will enable the greater solution to be funded.  A few key target goals of a pilot BI/analytics project:

  • Gain trust.  Build faith from leadership that the proposed DW/BI/analytics approach will be effective and that it will have business value.  Help leaders see a strong value equation.  Most business leaders know that technology for technology’s sake is foolish.
  • Demonstrate value (actual business usage) and cost effectiveness.  If a pilot cannot demonstrate these characteristics, there is no need to build more than the prototype.  The lack of value is the reason IT-focused pilots rarely go further than the pilot stage.
  • Demonstrate proficiency.  When requesting funding for greater efforts, leadership wants to have faith in the credibility of those who seek endorsement.  A pilot provides an opportunity to impress leadership with business and technical knowledge, technical skill, and ability to implement with a focus on delivering defined value.
  • Demonstrate solid architecture.  This is one of the most frequently ignored key goals.  Unfortunately, ignoring the importance of architecture can have dire consequences for all future plans.  What happens when people build quick and dirty pilots that have no founding architecture?  Typically, those who benefit determine they do not need a solid architecture.  Since they received value quickly, they want the team to continue building out the prototype, regardless of eventual costs.  It is essential to articulate the reasons “built-out” pilot solutions result in inconsistent data, fragmented tools and solutions, and limited future flexibility/scalability.  A complete architecture will avoid these challenges and will enable long-term organizational planning success.
  • Demonstrate security and privacy of data and applications.  Many BI / analytics pilots ignore sound security and data privacy design in their solutions, since they are based on the premise “that is something we can include in the real solution once we get approval to build fully.”  There is tremendous exposure in not having this foundational element to protect the pilot data.  If the pilot is successful and excitement generated, a team does not want to have security/compliance shut the project down and suggest a completely different approach.  Work closely with security/compliance officers in all planning and building activities, so that when any projects are presented to leadership there are no surprises.
  • Demonstrate the proposed development approach.  A project that builds upon a framework completely different than the proposed solution will generate user excitement, but IT leadership must question the reasoning and feasibility since nothing permanent was demonstrated.  As organizations take a more formal role in governing and overseeing the development of all applications, the scrutiny paid to each plan grows.  As analytical efforts are traditionally wrought with failure and overspending, particular attention will be paid to these initiatives.  Being able to clearly demonstrate and articulate an effective approach becomes very important.
  • Choose pilot tools and products carefully.  Choosing tools that can grow, effectively supporting a pilot and the full solution are important.  Too often organizations focus on large tools/technologies that require strong frameworks and development learning, making them difficult to implement with a pilot.  Start with small, simple tools that are known to be effective and can grow with the solution.  Keep in mind that many vendors will offer their tools free for the pilot in hopes that a successful pilot will translate into a purchase.

Picking a Pilot Project

One of the biggest challenges for picking an appropriate pilot project goes back to focusing on what the solutions wants to accomplish.  Here are some considerations for a solid choice:

  • Identifying a champion who is an early adopter.  Target a pilot that has an active, respected champion.  This person should be known for successful development and implementation, with a positive approach, and strong communication skills.  An early adopter means that they not afraid of new/novel ways of looking at things, and embrace learning and experimenting.  Give them something of value; they will make sure everyone knows it.
  • Pick low hanging fruit.  When investigating opportunities for pilots, there are seemingly endless use cases.  Do not go after high-value or high-visibility efforts that have major roadblocks, such as desired data is not captured, data not of high-quality, security/privacy issues are major, solution required is very costly and time intensive.  As simple as this point seems, it is very common and the reason so many pilot projects get started, but never finish.  Do not let priorities be identified by those who have the loudest voice or carry the biggest stick.  Target those individuals to be champions, but do not just take whatever they ask for; they will never be satisfied.
  • Choose a pilot that satisfies multiple needs to multiple organizations, since it will have more value than a solution for one person.  Having one person excited about the pilot is a tactic that will isolate the other potential champions.  With a few minor modifications to planning and approach, add functionality that can bring value to more than one champion or business unit.
  • Evaluate the level of technology depth.  While reports, dashboards, and scorecards make great pilots, occasionally a data mining effort might be the most valuable.  The key is to consider the ability to target something that can demonstrate success within a matter of months.  Remember to focus on an interface that is easy to navigate and understand.  When demonstrating success of BI/analytics effort, have an audience that will be able to see value and future opportunities.  If the demo is too technical, the business people will be lost.  If it is too flashy, it will seem like a sales pitch or significant budget request.

Final Results

When a pilot project is completed, create a presentation to the leadership that endorsed and funded it.  A successful pilot will be apparent by these characteristics:

  • Establish and socialize goals/plans, approach, and accountability – then deliver.  Ensure the champion understands the recommendations for the pilot’s expansion.  Champions should communicate with the key leaders who will eventually decide whether the larger effort can proceed.
  • Establish specific examples of value and demand before asking leadership to close out the pilot and request support/funding for next steps.
  • Some effective pilot efforts:
    • Providing a solution in only a few months that demonstrates an enterprise data warehouse framework loaded with real data
    • Implementing targeted use cases that directly provide specific value to urgent needs (like monitoring 30 day readmission rates)
    • Building a technology framework that is scalable and flexible, one that can support initial pilot, and grows to support many other needs.  This framework/architecture is the secret sauce that enables all success
    • Developing processes and policies to manage data and its metadata based on proposed solutions
    • Formal security and data privacy built into the pilot with reports that identify all queries and identifies all data access
    • Providing a query interface that others across the organization can use to test simple hypotheses about grouping data (e.g., identification of cohorts across diseases, coverages across lines of business, etc.)


A successful BI/analytics pilot project is a critical step in building a program for larger solutions that have broad value to an organization.  Remember to target a high-value need that satisfies business requirements.  This is accomplished by using simple technology tools, not trying to build a flashy solution.  Rather, a successful BI / analytics pilots aim to develop a functional, easy to use solution with a few options, easy flow/navigation, and targeted audience of early adopters.  Clearly articulate the approach and then deliver on time and on budget.


Bruce D. Johnson

Bruce D. Johnson is an experienced IT consultant focused on data / application architecture, and IT management, mostly relating to Data Warehousing. His work spans the industries of healthcare, finance, travel, transportation, and retailing. Bruce has successfully engaged business leadership in understanding the value of enterprise data management and establishing the backing and funding to build enterprise data architecture programs for large organizations. He has taught classes to business and IT resources and speaks at conferences on a variety of data management, data architecture, and data warehousing topics.

© Since 1997 to the present – Enterprise Warehousing Solutions, Inc. (EWSolutions). All Rights Reserved

Subscribe To DMU

Be the first to hear about articles, tips, and opportunities for improving your data management career.