Data is flowing into organizations in larger and larger amounts and from more and more sources, creating an abundance of information to analyze in search of business insights and competitive advantages. In addition, the still-sluggish economy and hyper-competitive business climate are pushing resource-constrained companies to seek out fresh revenue opportunities -- another reason to make data more readily available for analysis by business users.
One answer is self-service business intelligence software, which aims to push BI capabilities and control further out into the enterprise. The idea behind deploying self-service software is to foster wider and more effective use of BI tools by enabling end users to write queries and create reports on their own, without having to wait for IT or BI teams to do the work for them.
"Even if you have perfect harmony between business users and IT, the very act that you have to explain to someone else what you need to do rather than going and doing it yourself is time-consuming, awkward and limiting," said Chris Webb, founder of Crossjoin Consulting, a consultancy in Amersham, England, that focuses on Microsoft's BI tools. "Self-service gives users a lot more freedom to follow their own hunches and explore data in their own way."
Self-service applications offer a way to extend the scope and reach of BI deployments while also creating a more personalized and collaborative decision-making environment for information workers, added Claudia Imhoff, president and founder of Intelligent Solutions Inc., a BI and analytics consultancy in Boulder, Colo.
Living the simple self-service life
Imhoff co-authored a report on self-service BI that The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) published in July 2011. In the report, Imhoff and fellow author Colin White, founder of consulting company BI Research in Ashland, Ore., wrote that self-service implementations should focus on four main objectives: easy access to data for reporting and analysis; user-friendly BI tools and data analysis capabilities; simple and customizable user interfaces; and data-warehousing technologies that can be deployed quickly, such as appliances and cloud-based systems.
In preparing the report, Imhoff and White surveyed 587 business and IT professionals. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents cited a need for faster time-to-value from BI systems in their organizations, while nearly half said their organizations needed to become more analytics-driven. Self-service BI tools can help meet both of those needs, Imhoff said.
Despite the various factors driving increased needs for BI capabilities, the penetration of BI software into organizations remains relatively small, and its usage in many cases is still fairly rudimentary, said Wayne Eckerson, director of TechTarget Inc.'s BI leadership research unit.
According to a survey of 234 BI and IT professionals, business users and consultants that Eckerson conducted in July 2012, on average only 26% of the employees at responding organizations were working directly with BI tools, while another 37% were using analytical data the tools generated. And among the BI users, 47% were simply viewing static reports or dashboards, the survey found.
Too much for IT to do?
Part of the reason for such low numbers is the traditional, IT-centric approach to BI, in which business users are reliant on IT staffers or BI team members to create queries and build reports for them. That puts limits on how far users can go with the data; it can also be a burden on IT and BI managers trying to keep pace with escalating user requests at a time when many have diminished resources to call upon.
"Users have more and more questions they are trying to answer, and IT just doesn't have the people and resources to keep creating new slices of that data," said Francois Ajenstat, director of product management at BI vendor Tableau Software Inc. in Seattle. "Business users are getting frustrated, and IT is drowning in the backlog."
At HealthHelp, a Houston-based company that provides radiology management services for insurers and physicians, its original BI system relied on IT to process all data analysis requests. But BI is such a key part of HealthHelp's business model that it had to find an approach that would give users both increased autonomy and agility, said Steve Spar, the company's chief information officer.
"We do a lot of analytics work in terms of understanding and reporting on trends -- it's really the company's main value proposition back to the customer," Spar said. "The 'ask, wait, get an answer, ask, wait, get an answer' process [between the business and IT] was very time-consuming and unsatisfying, both for our internal users and our external customers."
Using Tableau's self-service software and a new data warehouse infrastructure, sales and client service representatives and HealthHelp executives are now empowered to drill through data, ask follow-up questions and generate reports themselves. As a result, Spar said, "we have much faster turnaround" on getting data out to customers.
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 email@example.com.
Follow SearchBusinessAnalytics.com on Twitter: @BizAnalytics_TT.