On a recent international flight I could not believe how quickly I passed through immigration by using one of those self-service kiosks where you just insert your smart passport. I notice that more and more stores are using self-service checkouts now as well.
So what about self-service BI? You would think with all the hype from BI vendors, that it’s just a question of buying the right tool and it’s as easy as a self-service checkout. Well, not quite.
Smart passport and checkout kiosks are transactional applications that perform an end to end process that you are guided through to a predictable outcome. Business Intelligence is a little bit different.
There are two main types of users in BI : those who know what they are looking for and want it quickly and with the least amount of effort and those who haven’t got a clue what they want, but want access to the data so they can explore it and find something interesting, and perhaps, of value.
So, these first type of users do not want BI tools , they want end-to-end guided BI applications that are preferably visual, intuitive, fast and predictable.
The second type of users, who traditionally make up less than 5% of any organization, want powerful BI data discovery tools with which they can analyze sets of data to look for interesting things and, if they don’t find anything, move on to the next set of data.
Please, forgive me if this sounds too simple, but it sometimes feels as though the tail is wagging the dog when people say that the way to self-service BI is to give everybody these BI data discovery tools. That would be equivalent to asking the customer at the supermarket self-service checkout to go search for all the barcodes of all items to determine its price rather than just scan it!
The other big challenge with self-service BI is the quality of the data. While on the one hand, end users are complaining about how slow I.T. is to turn around their reporting and BI requests, but they complain even louder when they are given access to the data itself and it is often not correct. This problem is made worse when desktop data discovery tools, that allow modification of the data, are used and we step back to that world of islands of data so commonplace with Access and Excel that BI was supposed to eliminate.
So, back to the question of whether self-service BI really exists, I believe it can be created in the form of guided BI applications. Many organizations have already figured this out on their own and have created cool, integrated portals that allow and guide users to get the reports, analysis and BI insights as easy as using a supermarket self-service checkout. And, all of this is happening while most BI vendors are too preoccupied trying to sell these customers “tools”.
The BI tools that I see being used to create these self-service BI applications are the tried and trusted Xcelsius, Web Intelligence integrated through BI Workspaces or maybe SharePoint. I have seen some data discovery integrated into these applications very successfully with BusinessObjects Explorer.