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Business intelligence planning for health care: Know where to start

Before BI implementation can begin, several key questions must be answered. Chief among them: what information will be needed and what business processes will be addressed.

While there is little question that business intelligence can help organizations to use their data to make better business decisions, figuring out how to get started can be a daunting task. After all, everybody seems to have a different idea about what business intelligence really is, so you need to make sure to design your BI project in a way that will provide real value to the decision makers in your company. This article discusses some of the more important considerations that you should take into account when you begin business intelligence planning.

Business intelligence planning highlights need for single version of the truth

The value of the information provided by business intelligence software is only as good as the underlying data. Therefore, before you even begin thinking about buying business intelligence software, you need to take measures to ensure the integrity of your data.

One of the big problems plaguing large organizations is that each application is often linked to its own database. Inevitably, some of the databases will contain overlapping data. For example, an organization might have a dozen different databases that contain patients' names, addresses, contact information and other records.

This is a problem for a few different reasons. For starters, if a company has the same data in multiple databases, it means that the company is wasting resources and not operating as efficiently as it should. If you really stop and think about it, the company has paid data entry clerks to enter the same data over and over. This is a waste of time and money.

Another reason why overlapping databases is problematic is because the data may become contradictory over time. Since each application is tied to a different database, there will likely be data that is updated in one database, but not in another. In addition, data may be inconsistent from database to database -- for example, one may include middle initials as part of names while another doesn't.  

From a business intelligence planning standpoint, overlapping databases is a major problem because it means that the information that is reported by the business intelligence software will vary depending on which database the data was pulled from. That being the case, your first objective should be to establish a single version of the truth.

One way to accomplish this is to use a master data management product to synchronize your most important business data. These products include Microsoft SQL Server Master Data Services, Oracle (Corp.) Master Data Management Suite and IBM Master Data Management. If your company develops applications in house, then the development staff might be able to retool applications to use a centralized database. Whatever method is used, establishing consistent data should be the first step in business intelligence planning. It is also important to build a clinical data warehouse and load it with a consolidated and cleansed set of data from operational systems.

Business intelligence planning requires management's support

Once you have gotten your data organized, it is time to have a discussion with the decision makers in your company. You need to find out what they hope to gain from business intelligence so that you can provide them with exactly what they need.

When you start business intelligence planning, you should forget all about the software and focus instead on the data and how it relates to forecasting and decision making.

Even though this step sounds like a no-brainer, it is really important. About a year ago, I saw an overzealous IT pro purchase and implement a business intelligence package without taking the time to work closely with decision makers on business requirements. In his effort to impress the management team, this particular person completely overloaded them with useless data.

A good BI solution doesn't have to produce complicated results. If anything, the information should be simple and easy to understand. That's why dashboard views are so popular.

The trick to making business intelligence work for your organization is to find out what the decision makers need to know and how that information can be delivered. Once you know that, you can establish a set of key performance indicators within your data that need to be monitored by your business intelligence software.

In many cases, determining what key performance indicators to use is easy. The tough part is locating the specific information that you need within the organization’s data. That’s one reason why it is so important to get your data in order before you begin business intelligence planning.

Unless you have a data warehouse, as you work to locate the data related to your key performance indicators, you will likely discover that the data is scattered throughout multiple departments. My experience has been that, in any organization, there is always at least one manager who tries to run their department as a silo by avoiding interaction with other departments at all costs.

It is important to make sure that you have the blessing of someone in upper management for your BI project. Otherwise, office politics may stand in the way of getting access to the data that is related to your established key performance indicators.

Overall, business intelligence is about using the company's business data to make good business decisions. As such, when you start business intelligence planning, you should forget all about the business intelligence software and focus instead on the data and how it relates to forecasting and decision making. Once the relationships between your data have been established, you can begin looking for software that will help to extract the necessary information from your data.

About the author:
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. Write to him at

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