This content is part of the Essential Guide: DIY BI: A guide to self-service business intelligence implementation
Manage Learn to apply best practices and optimize your operations.

Recipe for self-service BI calls for flexibility, governance, user aid

A one-size-fits-all-users approach can send self-service business intelligence efforts off track; so can a lack of oversight and up-front development.

While the self-service business intelligence moniker implies that business users will be able to effortlessly partake in BI activities, implementing tools that are truly self-service and that get widely embraced isn't so simple. Technical, procedural and cultural issues can all trip up deployments if BI managers don't plan carefully and forge a close partnership with their business counterparts.

In fact, the road to self-service BI can be quite bumpy, according to a survey of 234 BI and IT professionals, business users and consultants conducted in July 2012 by Wayne Eckerson, director of TechTarget Inc.'s BI Leadership Research unit. Sixty-four percent of the respondents rated the success of their self-service BI initiatives as "average" or lower.

The biggest challenge they cited was that self-service BI tools require more training than expected; that answer was chosen by 73% of the respondents. In addition, 61% said using self-service software "creates report chaos" and 42% said the tools "confuse users." Fifteen percent even said they were getting more requests for help with self-service tools than they were before. "How can something be 'self-service' if it requires the IT department to train and support users continually? That's the conundrum of self-service BI," Eckerson wrote in a report about the survey.

The key to avoiding such problems, consultants and experienced BI managers say, is eschewing a one-size-fits-all approach and instead deploying a set of tools and processes that will accommodate power users as well as "information consumer" users who might require substantial training and handholding.

Action item: Support user diversity

"Just installing an easy-to-use BI tool doesn't automatically mean you have a self-service BI environment," said Claudia Imhoff, president and founder of BI consultancy Intelligent Solutions Inc. in Boulder, Colo. "There are different needs within an organization. You need to know who your information workers are and what kind of self-service they really want."

For example, tech-savvy users likely will be immediately comfortable with the idea of using self-service applications to dive into BI data and create their own queries and reports. For more casual users, Imhoff said, self-service might simply mean being able to change the parameters on a report to get a different spin on the data.

Governance of users is also critical to self-service BI success, despite the fact that IT has to loosen its control over the data analysis process. Working in tandem with business managers, BI teams need to establish common data definitions for key performance metrics, such as revenue and profitability, so there is organizational consistency in analyzing them. IT and BI managers should then monitor usage of self-service software on an ongoing basis to detect and correct any compliance issues and to head off runaway queries that could choke the BI system.

For more in this series on self-service BI, see:

Read about the benefits of self-service BI software

Why customizing self-service BI tools is essential

Darren Taylor, president of Cobalt Talon, an analytics service provider that is a division of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, said BI developers can help avoid such problems by hard-coding predefined performance metrics into self-service environments. "You could throw raw data into the self-service BI tool and let people be power users, but then you're talking the Wild West when creating metrics from one person to the next," said Taylor, who previously was vice president of enterprise analytics and data management at Blue KC.

Cooking up a self-service BI buffet

In much the same vein, Imhoff counsels BI managers to create a starter library of report templates and standard analytics routines as part of a self-service BI system so business users can pick and choose what they need based on their requirements. "Think of it as a buffet table of BI components," Imhoff said. "The more work IT can do on the front end, the more standardized this becomes, and it makes everything run easier."

Radiology management services provider HealthHelp did lots of work on both the front and back ends to ensure that its deployment of self-service BI tools was a success, said Steve Spar, the Houston-based company's chief information officer. IT and BI developers created standardized metrics for some of HealthHelp's more complex analytics parameters and also refined the data schema and database architecture underpinning the BI system so business users could easily locate data.

Spar said that with the right foundational technologies in place, users are truly empowered to do self-service BI, freeing IT workers from having to be hands-on in the data analysis process. "IT moves into a consultative role rather than a task-doing role," he added. "They can then help those who help themselves."

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, and other TechTarget sites. Email her at

Follow on Twitter: @BizAnalytics_TT.

Dig Deeper on Self-service and collaborative business intelligence

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.