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Self-Service Business Intelligence: It’s Wrong, Bad and Shouldn’t be Anyone’s Goal

Today’s goal is to find out who reads my blog posts.  So here it goes: Self-Service Business Intelligence is an outdated, over-stated and fundamentally flawed concept.  Those using this term should be mocked appropriately.

Ok, now let’s see if I get any comments!

I was going to end the blog there but my better half suggested that I at least explain myself before heading off smugly to my next philosophical rant.  So here it goes.

When I first started working in the corporate world many moons ago, I was in the accounting department of a fortune 500 company doing billing, AR and AP.  I was a data consumer at the lowest level of the proverbial food chain; so I was given piles and piles of reports every day and they were monsters.  These reports were spit out of an old, massive printer on wide sheets of alternating green and white background paper affectionately called (I think it was affectionately anyway) green-bar.

The green-bar reports were written by the IT professionals in the mainframe system and the reports ran every morning regardless of the day’s prior activity and even on holidays.  Monday morning was always fun as we had a huge pile to dig through and we ended up throwing away 50 pounds of blank paper before starting the day.  Ultimately these reports were processed/analyzed and the resulting values typed into Excel (or Lotus, we had both for some reason) and then dutifully filed away as they could not be reproduced.  Errors with the data were identified, corrected in the system and we went on our merry way.  Anyone want to guess why I eventually left accounting?

Anyway, we got a new system that was client server based and we actually had the ability to run our own reports.  These reports were also prompted so that we could just get the data we were looking for based on date, cost center, account number etc.  Life was good!  The term they used for this was…self-service.

Now this term made sense for me.  I had worked at McDonalds for almost 6 years during high school and college and self-service meant that people could go up and get the drink that they wanted from the soda machine and they didn’t require my help to get it.  This made them happy that they didn’t have to wait for me and it made me happy that they didn’t complain about too much ice.

Back to accounting though, we still had one issue that didn’t get any better and that was that changes to the reports still pretty much took an act of Congress. This one little issue, the painfully slow process to get new reports or to make changes to existing reports, caused us to still use Excel just as much as we did before.  The one positive was that fewer trees died with that seed we started to get a vision…a vision of control!  Pretty soon the idea of self-service morphed into one of the business having control over the entire process and being able to write and create their own data extracts… to put into Excel of course.

In reality though, at that point I wouldn’t be getting self-service anymore, instead I would be an IT person working in accounting.  So we have a dilemma now, the IT people see self-service as a chance to get the business out of their hair and just be admin and support people, the business see’s self-service as a model for getting rid of unhelpful IT resources.  Guess what?  Both teams need each other!  Trying to design a system to exclude your business partner is silly.

In the 1990’s, a restaurant chain tried the concept of having their customers grill their own steaks and guess what, it went out of business.  It may have sounded like a good idea, but people want their meals made by a professional who knows what they are doing.  Sometimes getting their own drinks can be nice, but when was the last time your waiter at Ruth’s Chris told you to get your own refills?  What kind of BI shop do you have?  McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris…what kind are you aiming for?

Certainly technologies and techniques have come a long way over the years and now customers have  access to environments which allow them to truly interrogate and play with the data to get what they want in tools other than Excel… but this doesn’t happen without dedicated, knowledgeable IT professionals working with knowledgeable and dedicated business users.  In the SAP BusinessObjects suite of tools for example, Universes insulate consumers from the complexities and gyrations that must be dealt with to get their data in a reportable format.  But even with a “perfect” Universe, work still must be done in the reports.  There simply is no such thing as a completely self-service environment.

The goal of every IT group should therefore not be to give their customers “self-service”, which is now defined as a model where the IT department just creates the ecosystem and then lets the customer go from there.  That model is sort of like the customer getting fed up with their food cooked incorrectly and then going back into the kitchen to cook it themselves.  “Sure, we’ll provide the stove, but the rest is up to you, so I don’t have to hear complaints”, says the manager.   No, the correct solution is to take the chef to the customer’s table, get everyone in agreement on exactly what they want and then she goes back and cooks it.  Unless you think that either your customer is too dumb to tell the chef what he wants or the chef isn’t smart enough to cook the meal, then you should never hand the customer a sauce pan.  Hand the customer salt and pepper, sure, but be realistic!

Ultimately, the customer wants access to good clean data presented in a way that makes sense and allows for straight-forward manipulation and analysis.  Professional BI developers need to sit down, side by side with the business and determine what is needed and how best to get it…simply trying to pass the buck to the customer doesn’t end up working for anyone.

The bottom line is that I’m not advocating a return to green-bar.  I’m just suggesting that the tools have already created a self-service BI environment and pushing that as a goal will lead to failure for everyone, so just don’t go overboard; the goal now, as it always should have been, is to make our customers happy not to make them IT people.


About Ethan

Ethan Durda is Director of Business Intelligence Development for INFOSOL providing training, consulting and project management for both Crystal Reports and BusinessObjects. Recent projects have included an XI R3 conversion and heading up a large Web Intelligence report development project. Ethan has 14 years in Information Services experience in a variety of platforms and databases. He has extensive teaching experience and has taught all levels of users and developers both BusinessObjects and Crystal Reports toolsets. Ethan is also active in various Business Intelligence Groups including America’s SAP User Group (ASUG), and previous to that, the Global BusinessObjects Network (GBN) organization. He is also a member of the Data Services Special Interest Group Steering Committee.

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