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Self-service BI – can it really exist out-of-the-box?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Research organizations such as Gartner, Forrestor, and TDWI report that self-service business intelligence is a critical requirement for a BI project. As Research Director at Dashboard Insight, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many different types of users. The skills, knowledge, and business needs range so much that it made me question the pursuit of self-service BI.

I’ve played with many of the popular business discovery tools and I’m not convinced any of the tools are self-service. You need to be a data analyst to understand how to make sense of the tool. In addition, it still requires IT to prepare the data whether it is providing an Excel spreadsheet with the data or access to the reporting database. Either way, there is still a dependence on IT contrary to what some vendors are purporting.

I’m not saying that self-service BI is not possible. The right visual analysis and dashboard tools can be created that are easy to use for the end user. It just requires custom development. I hear the sigh coming from you. Yes, you will need to rely on IT, but if the right BI software is chosen it will expedite the development process.

For those who would argue that Excel is that option, remember that someone still has to get them the data. More importantly, Excel is not an easy tool to learn; it’s on everyone’s desktop and that’s why people learn to use it. Think of the Windows operating system. It’s not easy to learn but you have to because it’s on almost every computer.

Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe there will ever be a true self-serve option.

What does everyone else think?

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Tomas Greif said:

How would you describe true self-service (out-of-the-box) solution? No skills required, but everything can be done?

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@Tomas - That's a very important question to answer for my post to have any meaning. Self-service BI, IMO, is software that someone can learn how to use without having to go out of their comfort zone. For example, a properly designed dashboard requires very little training to learn how to use and you don't have to know how it was built or how it was connected to data. However, building the dashboard usually requires knowledge of the data, data visualization design techniques, and software development concepts. Suffice to say that it is rare that an out-of-the-box dashboard meets all the business requirements; i.e. customization will need to be done by IT. Having a non-technical person develop their own dashboard requires a person to get out of their comfort zone which means the tool is not self-service.

This example can be applied to any software that claims self-service. The tool needs to be geared towards an audience's thinking process which is something that one tool is hard press to do with a group of people.

Tomas Greif said:

@Alexander - Thank you for your response. Even if you have a non-technical person with narrow comfort zone I can still imagine true self-service BI (however it won't be out of the box, you need some IT in the preparation phase). I think, such BI requires:
1) business metadata layer (data mapped to business objects, including possible business hierarchies)
2) set of PREDEFINED measures
3) PREDEFINED basic visualizations of measures /don't allow pie chart for monthly sales data/
4) PREDEFINED dashboard skeletons /no need to know anything about software development concepts/
With such BI even non-technical person can create a dashboard /just drag&drop measures in a dashboard template/. Yes, there are some constraints, you can't do anything you won't, but this will always be a necessary trade-off between skills (comfort zone) and possibilities.

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@Tomas - you're absolutely right. There is software that takes that approach for self-service. But you said it perfectly. It's a trade-off. For some, the predefined measures may be enough. However, I've only worked on projects that require customization. Take that with a grain of salt though. After all, I'm working on these projects because the company requires customization.

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