Business Intelligence

Self-Service BI (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)



Self-Service BI (SSBI) is a form of Business Intelligence (BI) in which the users are enabled and empowered to explore and analyze the data, respectively build reports and visualizations on their own, with minimal IT support.

Modern SSBI tools like PowerBI, Tableau or Qlik Sense provide easy to use and rich functionality for data preparation, exploration, discovery, integration, modelling, visualization, and analysis. Evenmore they integrated the advances made in graphics, data storage and processing (e.g. in-memory processing, parallel processing), which allow addressing most of data requirements. With just a few drag-and-drops users can display details, aggregate data, identify trends and correlations between data. Slice-and-dice or passthrough features allow navigating the data across dimensions and different levels of details. In addition, the tools can leverage the existing data models available in data warehouses, data marts and other types of data repositories, including the rich set of open data available on the web.

With the right infrastructure, knowledge and skills users can better understand and harness the business data, using them to address business questions, they can make faster and smarter decisions rooted in data. SSBI offers the potential of increasing the value data have for the organization, while improving the time to value for data products (data models, reports, visualizations).

The Bad : In the 90s products like MS Excel or Access allowed users to build personal solutions to address gaps existing in processes and reporting. Upon case, the personal solutions gained in importance, starting to be used by more users to the degree that they become essential for the business. Thus, these islands of data and knowledge started to become a nightmare for the IT department, as they were supposed to be kept alike and backed-up. In addition, issues like security of data, inefficient data processing, duplication of data and effort, different versions of truth, urged the business to consolidate such solutions in standardized solutions.

Without an adequate strategy and a certain control over the outcomes of the SSBI initiatives, organization risk of reaching to the same deplorable state, with SSBI initiatives having the potential to bring more damage than the issues they can solve. Insufficient data quality and integration, unrealistic expectations, the communication problems between business and IT, as well insufficient training and support have the potential of making SSBI’s adoption more difficult.

The investment in adequate SSBI tool(s) might be small compared with the further changes that need to be done within the technical and logistical BI infrastructure. In addition, even if the role of IT is minimized, it doesn’t mean that IT needs to be left out of the picture. IT is still the owner of the IT infrastructure, it still needs to oversight the self-service processes and the flow of data, information and knowledge within the organization. From infrastructure to skillset, there are aspects of the SSBI that need to be addressed accordingly. The BI professional can’t be replaced entirely, though the scope of his work may shift to address new types of challenges.

Not understanding that SSBI initiatives are iterative, explorative in nature and require time to bring value, can put unnecessary pressure on those being part of it. Renouncing to SSBI initiatives without attempting to address the issues and stir them in the right direction hinder an organization and its employees’ potential to grow, with all the implication deriving from it.

The Ugly : Despite the benefits SSBI can bring, its adoption within organizations remains low. Whether it’s business’ credibility in own forces, or the inherent technical or logistical challenges, SSBI follows the BI trend of being a promise that seldom reaches its potential.

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IT professional/blogger with more than 24 years experience in IT - Software Engineering, BI & Analytics, Data, Project, Quality, Database & Knowledge Management