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Making the Case for Self-service Analytics

by John Callan, TIBCO Spotfire Inc.Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Centralized, monolithic reports are largely unused by the business professionals for whom they were designed.

Business professionals today are inundated by a mass of standard, canned reports that have been produced in a central location, using centralized data owned by a centralized organization. Rather than empower these professionals to make better, more informed decisions, these reports often serve to distract and confuse an already challenging job.

The consumers of these reports know this, and, as a result, most of these reports go unread or even unopened. Unfortunately, a typical sales, marketing, or finance professional is mandated by their management to understand the data within these reports and, very often, play a role in the workflow that submits change requests (for new data, new analyses, and so forth) back to the centralized groups that have created them in the first place. They do this, even though they increasingly find little value in the work that is eventually produced.

The Case for Spreadsheets

In today’s fast-paced business environment, it’s not acceptable business professionals to blame their technology if they made a poor decision or missed a critical insight.  It would be easy to throw one’s hands up and blame the monolithic report system that produced a static (and largely irrelevant) snapshot of historic data which led to a lack of understanding of the dynamic nature of their business or process. It would be easy, but not acceptable. “A good workman doesn’t blame his tools”, goes the old adage.

In this environment, diligent and astute business professionals simply need to get their job done and will creatively use whatever tools they have at their disposal. Hence, they turn to spreadsheets: the most flexible data analysis tool they are familiar with. Spreadsheets carry the benefit of not only being ubiquitous, but also being able to read in their data – and add new data if needed.  Spreadsheets also contain capabilities to allow for data exploration, which allows users to gain modest insight. For this reason, spreadsheets are so often the first tool people turn to in order to conduct self-service analytics.

When not aware of a better solution, it’s no wonder why there is such a proliferation of ‘spreadmarts’: large quantities of spreadsheet-based analysis and data-storage files inside an organization, residing on local hard drives and shared network drives. Although many CIO’s hate to admit it, much of their company’s IP is locked up in these unsecure and inefficient ‘spreadmarts’.

True Analytics for Everyone

Business professionals aren’t satisfied with their reports because they simply provide a level of data presentation. What an under-pressure business professional like a Financial Analyst or VP of Marketing or Category Manager needs is an understanding of their data. This understanding is absolutely essential if they are to fully command their area of specialty, provide the most value back to their business, and ultimately make the best and most informed decisions. Truly understanding the data (and, by natural extension, their area of professional responsibility) offers a much higher value to a business professional and their organization, then simply being presented in a static report, in a sort-of ‘data fait accompli’. This is the reason they look elsewhere beyond their reporting system, like a thirsty man in the desert – being offered an expensive glass of cognac when what they really want is a functioning water well.

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