The self-service approach has long been touted as a way to democratize business intelligence. But that democratic notion can complicate the process of evaluating and choosing self-service BI tools since project managers often have to cater to the separate needs of different groups of users.
As a result, consultants and BI managers say, a cookie-cutter approach typically isn't feasible on deployments of self-service applications. For example, corporate executives, business managers and other casual BI users might simply want interactive dashboards and reports that they can drill into if they want to further analyze some of the data presented to them. More advanced users, on the other hand, are likely to be looking for a high degree of query, report and dashboard authoring capabilities.
For more in this series on self-service BI, see:
Read about the benefits of self-service BI software
Vital ingredients for self-service BI success
Ultimately, self-service business intelligence should be viewed as a management discipline for broadening the base of BI users in organizations, not a specific technology and feature set, said William McKnight, president of McKnight Consulting Group in Plano, Texas.
"Self-service BI is more of a touchstone for how we roll out our business intelligence," he said. "You can do self-service BI with a variety of tools -- it's really a matter of [what level] the users are and where the technology is and bridging the gap with the idea that you expect users to do more."
Mobile apps put users at ease
At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, a combination of intuitive dashboards and self-service BI tools running on iPads was instrumental in getting top execs and business managers to feel more comfortable about creating their own reports and analytical queries, said Darren Taylor, formerly vice president of enterprise analytics and data management at the health insurer. After previously relying on power-user business analysts to create reports for them, the users have started taking matters into their own hands, added Taylor, who now is president of Blue KC's Cobalt Talon analytics services subsidiary.
"There's something less intimidating about someone taking a mobile device and being shown how to do advanced reporting and analytics at their fingertips as opposed to doing that on a laptop," he said. "Now we're able to push out data to those who were dependent on others to get them what they needed without them being afraid [of analyzing the data themselves]."
Steve Spar, chief information officer at HealthHelp, said the Houston-based provider of radiology management services for insurers and physicians needed more user-friendly software that would enable an expanded base of business workers to access its BI data. While the IT group had done what Spar describes as heavy lifting in the company's enterprise data warehouse to build in pre-aggregated analytics metrics for users, he said that generating reports still required skills in using SQL and other programming languages. That made it difficult for people outside of IT to access data directly from the data warehouse -- a situation that Spar and his team set out to rectify.
"We wanted something that was interactive and visually oriented and not something that required a lot of custom programming," Spar said. "Before, people would put in a ticket and wait to get back a report or graph, and it was all hinged on what the analysts were doing that day." Now, with self-service software in place, workers in HealthHelp's client services department can drill into customer data, analyze it and send their findings to customers without any interaction with the IT staff.
Self-service BI tools add visual appeal
Data visualization capabilities built into self-service software can also help make BI findings easier for users to grasp, said Claudia Imhoff, president and founder of consulting company Intelligent Solutions Inc. in Boulder, Colo. That could be a key capability for some organizations or groups of users in a company, depending on their needs.
"We've come a long way in making BI tools easy to use -- that's always been the mantra," Imhoff said. "But where we've not done so well and where we still have some challenges is making the information easy to consume in a format users understand."
In addition, companies heading into the selection process might want to consider other types of functionality that can help plug gaps in BI processes. For example, self-service BI tools with built-in collaboration capabilities, such as a chat feature, could encourage users to share information and work together on data analysis.
"Users can talk about what they're finding," McKnight said. "Not so much, 'Hey, I ran this report -- is anyone interested?' But more collaborating over the findings and getting to some business results, all while looking at the same data and potentially running another query."
For IT and BI managers, robust monitoring tools that can be used to oversee self-service systems and manage use of the tools are a must -- especially given that they'll get the blame for poor system performance. "IT needs to better monitor performance to head off runaway queries and convoluted and complex analytics that run in a highly inefficient fashion," Imhoff said. "You need that kind of visibility so you can say to users, 'You need additional training.'"
Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for more than 25 years for a variety of publications and websites, including SearchBusinessAnalytics.com, SearchDataManagement.com and other TechTarget sites. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This was first published in February 2013