22 min read

When to Use an External BI Consultant

By Jon Thompson on September 9, 2022 9:36:01 AM MDT

handshake with business intelligence consultant

While some companies choose to manage their data strategy and BI projects internally, many opt for outside consultants. Others may choose a hybrid approach of using an outside partner to help outline their data roadmap and develop the underlying architecture of their project before creating or augmenting an internal team to manage their ongoing needs.

Potential Pitfalls of Self-Service BI

While the hybrid approach can be successful (Blue Margin supports this approach through knowledge transfer and advisory services), we’ve observed mixed results with self-service BI and have been hired to help revive or rearchitect poorly executed projects.  

"Building your own team is not risk free." - Caleb Ochs, VP of Delivery Operations, Blue Margin 

Companies working towards data-driven decision making and operations should consider the risks of the self-service model: 

  • It can be just as expensive, if not more, than hiring an external partner (Conlin, 2022).  
  • Expected business impact falls short. “Efforts can easily be deemed a success by IT measurements (good infrastructure, performance, coding, change management, etc.) but a failure to the business users” (Turley, 2014). 
  • Poorly defined data strategy due to lack of experience. “While [any data insight] is better than ‘going with your gut’ alone, without a clearly defined data-driven strategy, you are still shooting in the dark” (Durcevic, 2019). 
  • You don’t have the benefit of accessing “the full bench” of an external partner’s team of experts, and small BI teams may lack the specialized skillsets needed to build and maintain quality BI systems (Data Meaning, 2021). 

In The Dashboard Effect Podcast episode, How to Succeed with BI: External Partner or Internal Team?, Blue Margin CEO, Brick Thompson, and VP of Delivery Operations, Caleb Ochs, discuss the merits of engaging an outside partner over building an in-house BI team, and why you might consider the former approach for your next project. 

 

About Blue Margin

We help private equity and mid-market companies quickly organize their data into dashboards, the most efficient way to turn strategy into action, and create a culture of accountability focused on growth and profitability. We call it The Dashboard Effect, the title of our book and podcast. Our mission is to meet your needs and budget and deliver breakthroughs to our clients early and often.

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For Further Listening

 


Resources 

Conlin, Bennett. (2022, June 29). In-house vs. outsourcing: How to decide what's right for your business. Business News Daily. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/7004-employee-outsourcing-tips.html 

Data Meaning (2021, October 13). Benefits of Outsourcing Business Intelligence Services. Data Meaning. https://datameaning.com/data/benefits-outsourcing-business-intelligence/ 

Durcevic, Sandra. (2019, May 22). Common business intelligence challenges facing entrepreneurs. DataPine. https://www.datapine.com/blog/business-intelligence-challenges 

 Turley, Paul. (2014, July 11). Business Intelligence Roles and Team Composition. Microsoft TechNet. https://social.technet.microsoft.com/wiki/contents/articles/25319.business-intelligence-roles-and-team-composition.aspx


Full Transcript 

Brick Thompson: 0:02 

Welcome to The Dashboard Effect Podcast. I'm And I'm Caleb Ochs. Brick Thompson. Hey, Caleb, how's it going? 

Caleb Ochs: 0:06 

Pretty good. Are you? 

Brick Thompson: 0:06 

Good. It's good to sit down with you. 

Caleb Ochs: 0:07 

Yeah, you too. 

Brick Thompson: 0:07 

What are we talking about? 

Caleb Ochs: 0:08 

So I think we're going to start talking about how to do BI successfully, and the first topic is going to be: should you use an internal team? Build one (or maybe you have an existing one)? Or should you go find a partner to help you? 

Brick Thompson: 0:28 

Yeah, this is an interesting topic. And it's almost a little fraught for you and I to do it, since we're partners that help people build BI. But we definitely have an opinion on this. And let's get into it. 

Caleb Ochs: 0:41 

Yeah. All right. Let's do it. 

Brick Thompson: 0:43 

Okay. So I've found with most of our clients, there is a desire to get to the point where they're completely managing BI internally. Which kind of makes sense, right? If you're running a business, it's natural to assume that you can hire employees, and it's going to be less expensive to do that, than to bring in partners. 

Caleb Ochs: 1:05 

Yeah, it's logical, right? It's logical to think that. And, you know, we've seen that over and over to your point, where people want to have, you know, they may want us to do something and then ultimately they want to build a team and have them manage it ongoing. 

Brick Thompson: 1:18 

Yeah, I get that. And in fact, we help companies do that. But we also see a lot of benefit to having an outside third-party, arm's length person come in, and especially during the time that you're truly establishing becoming data-driven and getting BI fully integrated in your company. What are the some of the reasons that you think are important for bringing in a partner? 

Caleb Ochs: 1:44 

I think there's a lot of reasons. You know, there's... first of all, I think that that having a partner is probably one of the best things you can do for a BI initiative. There's a lot of reasons, and I'm trying to figure out where I want to start, of why you would want to do that and not go right towards building your own team. I think I've just been scarred by seeing so many times where we get somebody going, they tried to build their team, and ultimately those people either succeed (in the rare case), or they may be there for a little while then they quit. Or it just doesn't work out. There's a lot of you know... building your own team is not risk free. 

Brick Thompson: 2:28 

No, it's not. And you know, it seems like oh, this might be less expensive. But there's definitely compromises there. One of the big ones is.... Well, first of all, it's not necessarily less expensive. But one of the big compromises, let's say you build a team of three people to run your BI internally. Let's say you have a lead and two developers. Hopefully those three people bring all of the skills and experience and knowledge you need to be able to build out a good BI system. Often that's not the case, though. Whereas if you have a partner that has a reasonable bench, they might have a dozen people they can bring to bear on whatever problems come up and issues come up as you're doing the implementation. 

Caleb Ochs: 3:11 

Right. Yeah. So if you have a partner you pay for, however, they've structured their fees, but you get access to their entire bench, everybody that works there and all the expertise that come along with it. At least that's how we work. So you're right, if you have a team of three developers, one of them being a lead, you're looking at probably on the low-end of 300 grand a year, right? That's a lot of capital that can go a long ways with a partner, and you'll probably get a lot better results out of it. 

Brick Thompson: 3:43 

Yeah, I think that's right. I think one of the big things, one of the big advantages I see is having someone who's a third-party and arm's length, they can be less of an order taker often than an internal team. An internal team almost can't help becoming a bit of an order taker. So a senior executive will come to that team and request a report and tell them exactly how they want it. And internal teams often will default to just saying, "Yes, sir," and building it out exactly how they want. Whereas if you have a good partner, hopefully, they stop that person and say, yep, that's interesting. Tell me the goals of this. What decisions are you going to be making? What behaviors are you hoping to drive with this? And then really dig in and figure out what the right prescription is. As opposed to the, "Okay, I'll just do it." 

Caleb Ochs: 4:35 

Yeah, and I think the next episodes in our in our little mini series here are gonna go into some of those things on how you would do that really well. But you're right, think about the motivation of your internal team. They want to keep their job, so they're not going to push back too hard on you, when maybe you need that. 

Brick Thompson: 4:51 

You're afraid I'm going to tell my toe story, aren't you? 

Caleb Ochs: 4:53 

(laughing) You can tell the toe story if you really want. 

Brick Thompson: 4:58 

The analogy I give people is imagine a patient goes to his doctor and says, "Hey, Doc, my toe really hurts. Can you please cut it off?" And the doctor says, "Sure," and cuts it off and then asks, "Okay, so why did we do that?" "Oh, it just hurt. I was thinking that would make it stop hurting." A better approach would have been for the doctor to say, "Okay, tell me about the toe. Let's talk about how did this start? What what's going on?" Do a diagnosis and then give a prescription. Hopefully, the prescription is not cutting off the toe. So that's kind of an extreme example. But that happens in businesses. I see it. I see an executive come to a BI team and say, "So I know this report I need. If you can just give me a pie chart with 57 slices in it, I'll have exactly what I need." You know, as a BI, professional, you can probably know that's not right. But sometimes the internal teams can't help but say, "Okay, here you go." 

Caleb Ochs: 5:54 

Right, right. Well, then there's only so much you're gonna do to push back as an internal team. You may try a little bit, but then if you don't get any traction, you're just gonna say, alright, we'll just do it. Someone actually.... One of the more challenging things that we have to deal with is that exact scenario. "I already know what I want. Just do this." So we'll get into some of those tactics on how we overcome that later on in this little series. 

Brick Thompson: 6:15 

Okay. So when we're working with a partner, or with a with a client, often seems like a partner, and they really want to move to having an internal BI team, we can actually be really helpful with that. And any good BI partner, external partner will do that. So they should be able to interview resources and help vet them and help get them on the right track. But I mean, my position is really that you should always have that outside viewpoint available. And maybe you don't need them as much as you did at the start when you didn't have anything and you're building out your first data warehouse. But you don't want to fall into a mode where all you know is your internal opinions. I think it's helpful to have outsiders come in, especially when you have inflection points in your system. And you're thinking about rearchitecture, or looking at a new fact area that you need to do reporting on. You get so much benefit by having that outside view. 

Caleb Ochs: 7:15 

Yeah, you do. And if you find a partner that you can trust, and you work well with, you can bounce those decisions off of them if you're looking at different software, or you're needing some input, are looking to hire the team, or even looking at the composition of the team. Right? Some some of the clients that we've worked with, have just asked us, "Who do we even need?" They have no idea where to start. And so if you've got a good partner that you can rely on, they'll have those answers for you. 

Brick Thompson: 7:40 

Yeah, as I think about a lot of companies that we've worked for that have had internal BI teams or have been trying to build them. It's not easy. In fact, often we get brought in to help rearchitect and rebuild BI systems that internal teams have failed on. And they would have been better off starting with an outside partner (a good one) to start with. 

Caleb Ochs: 8:05 

Right? Yeah. And you know, it's actually a good source of business for us is all that... 

Brick Thompson: 8:10 

This feels self serving, doesn't it? (both laughing) 

Caleb Ochs: 8:13 

...all the bad stuff that's out there. So hopefully, some people hire us and not our competitors. Otherwise, one of our business streams is going to dry up, if the bad BI goes away. (joking) 

Brick Thompson: 8:26 

Yeah. All right. So what are our big takeaways here? I think, number one, the cost is not necessarily more expensive to have an outside team. In fact, it might be less expensive, and almost certainly, especially when you're at the beginning of this journey, almost certainly more likely to get you to a good result. 

Caleb Ochs: 8:44 

Right. Right. And, you know, with one caveat there that you got to find the right partner. 

Brick Thompson: 8:48 

Yeah, yeah, of course. Right. And we definitely get brought in after, you know, suboptimal partners as well. 

Caleb Ochs: 8:54 

That's also true. Yeah, that's a whole other can of worms there. 

Brick Thompson: 8:58 

Yeah. Yeah, we should probably do another podcast around how to vet your partner. 

Caleb Ochs: 9:03 

That sounds like a great idea. 

Brick Thompson: 9:04 

What's our second takeaway, Caleb? 

Caleb Ochs: 9:07 

So, you know, building an internal team is not as simple as it may sound, right. There's going to be... there's things you have to deal with. You're managing a team at that point. You have the risk of turnover. We've worked with clients where they came to us because their entire BI team quit. So they had to find something else to do. So it's not a risk free option. Some of the risks that you run with a building an internal team and have a managing them, you don't necessarily see as much with a partner. 

Brick Thompson: 9:37 

Yeah, it's true. All right, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say that best route in my opinion, is to use a partner at least to get you up and running before you look to hire a team. And then hopefully, you've found the right partner that you can leverage to help you hire and build that right team. 

Caleb Ochs: 9:54 

I think 99% of the time, that is absolutely correct. 

Brick Thompson: 9:57 

Okay. All right. Well I think we've covered it. Caleb anything else you want to add? 

Caleb Ochs: 10:02 

That's it. 

Brick Thompson: 10:03 

All right. Been fun. 

Caleb Ochs: 10:04 

Thanks. 

Brick Thompson: 10:04 

See you soon. 

 

Jon Thompson

Written by Jon Thompson

Jon Thompson is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Blue Margin Inc. An author and speaker, Jon sheds light on how businesses can take advantage of a revolution in business intelligence to become data-driven and accelerate their success.