The Winchester Mystery House of Business Intelligence

front view of the Winchester Mystery House

Have you caught the new movie Winchester? It’s a horror film based on a true story – the enormous and bizarre San Jose mansion that was built by heiress Sarah Winchester.

Although she had no architectural training, Winchester herself created the plans for the house, which was continually under construction for decades. Hidden among its 161 rooms were unconventional elements like false stairways, decoy rooms, hidden passageways and doors that opened onto thin air.

Perhaps because much of the house was decorated with spider web and number “13” motifs, the story behind it was that the heiress believed she was haunted by the victims of Winchester rifles. The unending construction and maze-like designs were ways she sought to keep the ghosts at bay.

The real story might be even worse. “Far from an exercise in spiritualism, Winchester’s labyrinth arose because she made mistakes — and had the disposable income to carry on making them.”

What does the Winchester House have to do with business intelligence? Take a look at these examples, and see if you don’t find a few parallels.

A beautiful design – in some places. The Winchester mansion contains beautifully constructed rooms with rare hardwoods, custom finishes and ornate carvings. But the labyrinth of hallways in the design makes them inaccessible. A Tiffany stained glass window, for example, is installed in a room that receives no sunlight. Some BI solutions showcase cutting-edge visualizations, but overall lack basic functionality and ease of use.

Lots of dead ends. The Winchester House has a “Door to Nowhere” that opens to a second story drop into the garden, and a staircase that ends at the ceiling. The house had (what was for the time innovative) indoor plumbing, including 13 toilets – but eventually all but one were disconnected. Similarly, BI solutions that don’t integrate with user workflows or lack robust drilldown functionality may leave users at a dead end when they try to explore their data.

Under continuous construction. Workers were on site day and night building the house from 1884 until Winchester’s death in 1922. Rooms were built, then torn down to make way for new construction. The house featured fine hardwood inlays and custom stained glass windows, the work of highly experienced artisans. Does your BI solution require ongoing report creation or administration by costly technical personnel? And are they spending time on report creation when they are needed on other projects?

One person’s vision. Sarah Winchester designed her house for her needs, not those of her household staff or visitors. Whenever she perceived a lack, she designed a solution and had it custom built. Is your BI driven by someone’s vision, but not aligned with the analytics needs of end users?

Impossible to replicate. Imagine recreating the Winchester Mystery house somewhere else. There’s no master plan or blueprints. Similarly, homegrown or purchased BI solutions may lack documentation, or contain layers of custom code and workarounds that prevent you from extending your application’s business intelligence to new customers.

Overextended. At one point, the Winchester house was seven stories high – until the 1906 earthquake destroyed three of those stories. It was never designed with a foundation appropriate to its size. If your BI solution is built on an older technology, you won’t be able to accommodate new requirements as they evolve, whether those are a move to the cloud, new compliance or security issues, or new functionality.

Most likely you’ve seen applications that fall into the category “Winchester Mystery House.” Your analytics doesn’t have to be that way. A better alternative is modern BI designed for embedding, one that can be meshed with your application workflows, that lets you scale and adopt new technologies, and is easy to maintain and roll out to new customers.

Attribution for image: By Spiel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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