Thursday, March 30, 2006

Iteration is the key

Ken Pohl writes a thoughtful article on the issues of project management of a data warehouse project, and how this can differ from other IT projects. As he points out, a data warehouse project is unusual in that it is essentially never finished - there are always new sources to add, new types of analysis the customers want etc (at least there are if the project is a success: if it failed then at least you won't have too many of those pesky customer enhancement requests).

As the article points out, a data warehouse project is ideal for an iterative approach to development. The traditional "waterfall" approach whereby the requirements are documented at ever greater levels of detail, from feasibility through to requirements through to functional specification etc is an awkward approach. I have observed that in some companies the IT departments have a rigid approach to project management, demanding that all types of projects follow a waterfall structure. This is unfortunate in the case of data warehouse projects, where end-users are often hazy on requirements until they see the data, and where changing requirements will inevitable derail the neatest functional specification document (see diagram).
Given a 16 month average elapsed time for a data warehouse project (TDWI) it is almost certain that at least one, and possibly several, major changes will come along that have significant impact on the project, which in a waterfall approach will at the very least cause delays and may put the entire project at risk.

By contrast a data warehouse project that bites off scope in limited chunks, while retaining a broad and robust enterprise business model, can deliver incremental value to its customers, fixing things as needed before the end users become cynical, and gradually building political credibility for the warehouse project. Of course the more responsive to change your data warehouse is the better, but even for a traditional custom build it should be possible to segment the project delivery into manageable chunks and deliver incrementally. The data warehouse projects which I have seen go wrong are very often those which have stuck to a rigid waterfall approach, which makes perfect sense for a transaction processing system (where requirements are much more stable) but is asking for trouble in a data warehouse project. Ken Pohl's article contains some useful tips, and is well worth reading.


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