BI (Business Intelligence) 101
Non-technical users are increasingly jumping at the opportunity to get real-time business insight from data without the help of the IT department, whether they’re a small business without an IT staff altogether, or a high-ranking executive unwilling to request a report that will take a week to be completed.
What is self-service BI?
Self-service BI adheres to several definitions. Primarily, self-service BI is the democratization of data. It allows business users (such as executives or managers) to access and glean insight from data without the assistance of IT, or a team of analysts.
Within this definition, there are two main ways self-service BI is commonly accomplished. Often, self-service BI software offers simple, pre-built reporting templates and ad hoc reporting functions. In more robust software, users are able to apply what-if scenarios with little more than a GUI interface to mediate between their actions and the database queries taking place behind the curtain.
The benefit of simpler software is that any business user can pull reports without assistance. The downside is that more technical users may be disappointed by the lack of customization and drill-down options available when creating these reports. More complex products allows for all the drill-down, additional data sources, configuration, and customization a user could want, but may be too feature-heavy and confusing for a laymen interested in a quick report.
How can self-service BI help a business?
The main benefit of self-service BI is that it allows small companies or individual departments to increase efficiency without further tasking their IT or development teams.
If business users are able to directly access data on their own time, they will be able to make quick, informed decisions, and with practice they’ll be able to tailor reports to their needs. Cutting out the back-and-forth with IT minimizes wasted time (on both sides) and removes communication barriers. Additionally, the freedom to manipulate data on their own will allow business users to explore the available information and experiment with the various reports that can be constructed from it. Knowing what’s possible with the data can improve the applicability of the reports to the BI users’ need. It will also increase the users’ understanding of what the reports mean.
IT departments also benefit from the implementation of self-service BI. Allowing users to generate their own reports eliminates, or greatly reduces, time spent on simple report creation and opens resources for more advanced analysis efforts. While IT may need to be involved in the implementation (to configure the data sources), it will mean a lighter BI workload for them going forward.
Who wants self-service BI?
The clearest case for self-service BI software is in small business environments. Small businesses may not have a dedicated IT department, so there may be no one in the company capable of advanced data analysis and management. Many self-service BI providers offer preconfigured integration with common data sources (CRM, POS, Accounting software, etc.), such as those most likely used by small businesses. Self-service BI tools are, by design, simple enough for an average business user to learn and operate. This software is capable of covering small businesses’ data analysis needs, and capable of helping with data management.
Enterprise companies can also benefit from such software. Data-driven company cultures work to back up every decision with clear-cut numbers. Such decisions can be from marketing –which promotional medium has been most successful in recent months and should be continued — or from sales –what times of day are employees closing the most deals in various regions — or even manufacturing. Just as a small business can use BI software to analyze progress, forecast possibilities, and change course appropriately, enterprise managers can direct their teams with greater efficiency. C-level executive that need a quick overview of the company’s key metrics may also enjoy having access to a tailored BI dashboard that they can drill down into to monitor specific departments or business metrics.
How capable is self-service BI?
Self-service BI tools have increased greatly in their capabilities. Options range from restricted, template-based report generation to advanced analysis.
If the intended audience is business users, they will need the ability to use pre-built report templates and dashboards, perform ad hoc queries, and share their results. Such tools provide “wizards” to guide users through the reporting process, suggestions for data attributes in columns and rows, and text search rather than point-and-click user interface when selecting attributes from otherwise complicated diagrams.
Power users, on the other hand, are looking to perform what-if scenarios, apply metrics and hierarchies to the underlying data model, explore attribute relationships, and perform open ended operations (where one doesn’t know exactly what one intends to find).
Current self-service BI solutions offer most of these capabilities.
Tableau software is often cited for its excellent data visualization, but it also suffices as a self-service BI platform for casual users. Visualizations and dashboards are completely customizable but come with suggested forms and guides. Dashboards are ideal for many business users, because once a dashboard has been configured to display certain metrics, it will update in real time without further instruction. Using such tools, actionable insights can be gained immediately.
On the other end of the self-service BI spectrum is IBM’s Cognos Insight, which maintains the capability of IBM’s vast business intelligence offerings within an interface that’s fully capable of being operated by a business power user.
What’s the future of self-service BI?
Self-service BI offerings will increase in functionality as more emphasis is placed on improving the interfaces, and as business users become more educated about data, and its applications.
Business intelligence is becoming more ubiquitous as case after case demonstrates what can be accomplished by data-driven decision making. More departments and more business people will continue to request access to self-service BI tools, and one appropriate response would be for self-service BI providers to build apps and tools for delivering the required reporting capabilities to the appropriate individuals, such as the initiative from Information Builders.
Mobile BI applications are also on the rise. Mobile compatibility opens the door for data analysis away from a desk, or on cheaper, lightweight devices. Access to BI applications on lighter devices also eases the implementation process. IT won’t have to outfit every new self-service BI user with a more powerful workstation. It can be as easy as installing an application.
Business intelligence is only now realizing its potential to provide non-technical business users with the power to make informed decisions. The needs of advanced users, casual users, and executives alike can all be met with the right platform. Ad hoc queries, what-if scenarios, mobile compatibility, data source management, and easy to understand interfaces will eventually become ubiquitous among BI vendors. Then the movement that has already begun to democratize the power of data analysis across entire organizations will reach an informed completion.
By Keith Cawley