Seven Keys to Selecting a Decision Support Consulting Firm

You have fought hard and worked your internal organization to build the case for beginning a decision support initiative. Now you have a budget and a mandate; and your reputation is on the line to
deliver. But like many other organizations, you don’t have all the right expertise in-house. You realize that you need some outside assistance. The question is, how do you decide which Data
Warehousing Consulting firm is the right one to help you? There are a great number of organizations out there offering their services as “Data Warehousing Experts”. Almost everyone describes
themselves as “a leader”. But in reality, few of them are. Here are a few key things to consider when looking for outside help:

  1. Methodologies. Does the Consulting Firm (CF) have proven methodologies? Can they be customized to fit your needs? It is important that you are not financing a CF’s “R&D”
    effort to develop methods. You want the advantage of lessons learned over time. Ask for an overview of their methodologies that apply to your specific needs. Many CF’s say they have a
    methodology, but in reality it exists in the heads of one or two of their better resources. Make sure the methodology is standardized and that the CF has a process to train their resources in it.
  2. A Business Focus. Make sure you work with a CF that thinks about business issues, and not just technology. An emphasis on technology and products without the balance of a
    business perspective can cause you to lose sight of the business value your initiative is intended to provide. It can also alienate business users.
  3. Industry Experience. It is always an advantage to work with a firm that has experience in your specific type of business. This will lend credibility to the user community.
    However, don’t make this your number one decision criteria. No one knows your business like your own business people, and they need to be involved. Many times the CF’s industry knowledge can be
    a negative, when it is used as an excuse to reduce the involvement of your own business people. It is better to go with a firm that is business focused and has solid methods and experience in
    Data Warehousing as a discipline.
  4. The Right Expertise. If you are engaging a CF to build your Data Warehouse from the ground up, you will want to select one that has skill and experience in four areas: Data
    Management (analysis, design, modeling, and administration), Application Development, Project Management, and Data Warehousing Tools and Methods. If the CF is supplying all the people, make sure
    that there are resources available with the right skills, in your technology set. Ask to see representative people and meet with them. Many CF’s will promise resources and then hope they can
    find them later. That will leave you holding the bag if they cannot deliver.
  5. Be Willing to Share the Risk. Don’t demand iron-clad guarantees and insist on penalties. To react to this, many CF’s will promise to “make things right” if they cannot
    provide resources or make a deliverable date (and then go into a very defensive mode to try to avoid being penalized). However, no guarantee or penalty will help you if critical systems that your
    users are waiting for are not available when expected, or don’t work right. No amount of penalty paid by the CF can restore lost faith within your user community. And opportunities you miss
    because your decision support system was not ready on time could be costly. It is better to take a partnering approach that allows you to work openly with the CF. This will position you both to
    recognize and address problems early as a team; and keep the focus on results instead of on legal battles.
  6. Create a Statement of Work. A statement of work spells out the scope, objectives, responsibilities, deliverables, staffing, methods/plan of action, process for resolving issues,
    etc. for your engagement with the CF. This document should be created by the CF, with your input and approval. If done correctly, it will allow you to control the engagement, address issues, and
    determine clearly when the work is done. Without it, the stage is set for miscommunication and finger-pointing.
  7. Project Management. If you are hiring a CF to run your Decision Support project, Select a CF that has a firm foundation in Project Management. Statistics show that the majority
    of projects fail due to poor Project Management skills and leadership. Ask to review the CF’s Project Management Methodology. Ask to meet with some of their Project Managers; look for
    consistency in the methods and process. Good signs are: plan templates, standard estimating methods based on metrics, a standard project management/planning tool set, standard reports to track
    progress/issues/budgets, and a PM certification for their Project Managers. Review proposed project plans carefully for realism. Check that the resources are “leveled”, and that the plan takes
    into account holidays, vacations, and sick time for the resources assigned to the project. Do not insist on a PM that has extensive hands-on experience in data warehousing; you want a project
    manager, not an analyst. Good project management skills transcend the type of application being built; and data warehousing “gurus” are usually very unhappy in the PM role, where they must
    manage tasks, attend meetings, deal with people issues, and write reports. Save the rare data warehousing gurus for the demanding tasks related to design and architecture.

As a final piece of advice; take the time to prepare when selecting a Consulting Firm for a Decision Support engagement. Sit down with your internal decision-makers and set up clear selection
criteria that you can all agree on. The better the thoroughness, clarity and consistency of your criteria, the easier it will be to make the right decision. And you will save yourself a lot of time
in going back and forth between competing firms if you have planned the process out effectively.

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About Jim Gallagher

Jim Gallagher manages a Data Warehousing Practice within CIBER, Inc. (http://www.ciber.com).  He has over 15 years of experience in building systems, managing client relationships, and leading people. He is currently a member of Spectrum's internal R&D organization for technology and Data Warehousing methodology development, and supports delivery for Spectrum Data Warehousing engagements across the nation.

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