The self-service BI proposition: How big data is disrupting business intelligence

Massive amounts of data are being crunched in order to provide business intelligence to managers and directors so they can make the right decisions for their organizations. Here we look at how big data is turning BI into a self-service proposition.

Business intelligence is the cornerstone of good business decision-making. The amount and variety of data available for analysis is enormous and the technology for deriving value from this data has reached new heights of sophistication. However, the very complexity of BI in today's enterprise has made it less accessible to the actual users of this intelligence. As a result, IT has become the unwilling gatekeeper of BI—the interface between humans and machines. Business decision makers are faced with the challenge of climbing up the IT priority list before they can even access, much less comprehend and utilize, their company's BI. This resource scarcity is bad for stakeholders and for IT. Self-service that enables users to perform their own modeling and analysis is a vital solution to ease the mounting pressure on IT and permit full engagement with BI.

Start with the purpose; then design a process

According to Helen Frericks, Sr. Manager of Business Applications Development at Entegris, self-service BI is not about specific tools or about IT delivering reports. It's about a mindset: "How do we make it so that our users are able to help themselves to understand the data better, have better access to it, and have the ability to react more quickly to their demands within the business world?" At the same time, an SSBI system is made up of a set of systems, tools, and processes. Here's a look at the practical factors that make a BI system accessible.

Successful SSBI offers something for everyone

The SSBI system must serve a variety of users. First, there are casual end users such as managers who don't want to build their own reports. They are typically best served by BI with built-in templates that allow them to simply adjust report parameters as needed. Dedicated users in fields such as marketing, sales, and finance have the need to run more complex reports and require self-service tools that offer more freedom and flexibility. Finally, the data scientists and advanced business analysts benefit from being able to create completely new query types to explore data in novel ways.

How do we make it so that our users are able to help themselves to understand the data better?

Helen Frericks, Entegris

If one BI solution isn't able to meet the requirements of all these user groups, multiple solutions may need to be implemented. While it can be tempting to allow users to simply find the BI tools they like without involving IT, this is risky. IT must stay involved to handle access control and develop processes and policies to secure business data and the resulting BI reports. In addition, they must ensure appropriate provisioning of licenses and integration with backend systems for compliance and scalability.

How can self-service be effective?

For self-service BI, tools must be user friendly and easy to understand. According to a TDWI research report on Self-Service Business Intelligence by Claudia Imhoff and Colin White, advanced data visualization is one of the top three requirements for business users. This aspect of BI helps the average user easily understand the reports they are generating and gives experienced analysts the ability to make new connections. Another factor that eases use is the implementation of search functionality for natural language queries.

Effectiveness is just as much about training as it is about tools. Vijay Patki, Lead SAP Application Engineer at Nike, talked about the importance of knowing the data. In his analogy, knowing the BI tool is like knowing how to drive a car. The enterprise data is the map. Without an understanding of how business data is stored, organized, and accessed, users may end up driving in circles or getting lost. A meta-directory is one useful resource for helping business users grasp the totality of data available. A glossary of business terms is another important component. Having everyone on the same page limits confusion caused by conflicting BI reports. Ideally, SSBI training supports stakeholders in using data appropriately in alignment with business goals.

Involving key stakeholders in SSBI strategy

Who should IT engage in the BI tool selection and implementation process if they want to drive high adoption rates? According to Frericks, the super user is IT's secret weapon. When her company was working on an SAP BI self-service strategy, they brought in global users from around the world and trained them in this role. "We brought them on board and said, 'Without you, we are nothing.'  Self-service is nothing without the support of the super users." These users are employees who have a particular aptitude for technology. Each one becomes the go to person within their own department when other users have a question about SSBI. They can save IT a huge amount of time by providing ongoing training and assistance to their coworkers.

Patki agreed that user involvement is critical. "Normally in any IT project, the business stakeholders come in at the beginning to give the requirements—and then we forget about them until the time for beta testing. We decided we would engage the users from the very beginning and make sure they are part of each and every process. That way, they feel they belong to the process and we gather their trust. That really helps with the adoption."

With a strategy that aligns with user needs and business goals, tools that are user-friendly for all stakeholders, and an implementation process that ensures buy in, SSBI can be the next step in freeing IT to bring new value to the enterprise. 

How are you implementing self-service BI? Let us know.

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