The problems Business Intelligence organizations solve in organizations are generally the same. Pull some data out of somewhere, synthesize the data, analyze it, then create a picture of what is happening, what is going to happen, or what has happened. Working in small and large organizations, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a variety of different processes used to deliver these insights. These range from the overbearing, and associated documentation that crush people’s productivity, to the lightweight that creates quicksand beneath teams feet through the lack of knowledge transfer.
Seeing the overbearing and the extremely light weight, there’s one conclusion I’ve arrived at concerning documentation…
Document as Little as Possible
Don’t commit time to things that aren’t creating revenue or helping the business. Looking at IT projects, there is no doubt that the more documentation that there is, the less value there is. The perfect example came about when having a beer with a former co-worker.
It was brought up that the process at the company we both previously worked at had documentation that took longer to create then coding, testing, and implementing the change. Additionally, this painstakingly crafted documentation that the engineer had to spend time tracking down information for didn’t result in documents that would be useful to the team doing the work going forward. The process decreed that you must document X, Y, and Z in order to deploy the change/implementation so that’s what was done. The fundamental truth is that the “…benefit of having documentation must be greater than the cost of creating and maintaining it.”
Some people believe in the exact opposite of over documentation. Nothing should be documented. The code/implementation should speak for itself. This may work when you have a small size IT application the will always be managed by the same group of individuals (which likely won’t happen). Once you reach an application spanning multiple servers, teams, and databases the expectation for the code/implementation to “speak for itself” in a timely manner to those who have to report and get analytics out is unreasonable.
So, what’s being proposed in this rant? The only useful documentation that I’ve seen documents the “Why” and the “How”. Everything else doesn’t create value for the organization, as the cost to maintain and develop the documentation is too high.
Creating a BI Product entails connecting the business process to an application(s) or database(s). Depending on the environment that you’re working in, Inmon, Kimball, or something else entirely, you need to know the answer to why things in your system exist. The “Why” is important not only from a high leadership level, but also at a low technical implementation level. The “Why” statement done at the low level helps to ensure that a team is using previously created tools and implementations as designed. And if a change is made that goes against the original “Why”, it is intentional and by design.
As an example, working on the Vehicle Profitability by VIN project, the Data Architect created both Inmon (3-NF) and Kimball (dimensional reporting) structures on the project. The “Why” was made extremely apparent through documentation, so the teams knew how to use the current implementation to achieve their goal in the best way possible.
Are you importing new invoice data? That should go into the wholesale invoice structure so that it flows up in the existing fact that contains the revenue information for vehicles which our reports feed from. Why? Because we want a single source of truth for vehicle revenue.
When documentation providing the “Why” for technical implementations exists, it makes adding on and changing the existing processes and assets easier. As opposed to re-inventing the wheel over and over.
So after we know why something exists, the other piece that is useful for documentation is the “How”. The “How” shouldn’t be step by step instructions, it should function like a high level map. Data Flow Diagrams are a great example of “How” documentation that I’ve found useful for Business Intelligence products. Armed with the Data Flow Diagram and the “Why” of the design, team members who need to report on, extend, maintain, or refactor a system will be able to make informed decisions.
Make It Useful
At the end of the day, documentation gets in the way of creating code/analysis/direct business value. So the argument for spending time creating documentation is hard to make when someone hasn’t experienced the pains associated with lack of documentation. Lack of architecture that makes sense, misreported numbers, time wasted building processes that do exactly what existing processes already do.
Without documentation, maintaining and using a system or process as intended is impossible. With documentation that is accessible, searchable, and focuses on the “How” and “Why”, organizations can make smart and informed decisions of where to spend time, how to tweak things, and how to get value from their assets.