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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Real-World BI: Self-Service Proves Its Worth

There's still plenty of value to be had in conventional business intelligence and analytical technologies. How compelling? How about $10-million-in-new-sales compelling?

At this month's TDWI Executive Summit in Las Vegas, presenters David Han and Ted Corbett made a compelling case that there's still plenty of value to be had in conventional business intelligence (BI) and analytical technologies. How compelling? How about $10-million-in-new-sales compelling -- on the strength of a single customer information dashboard, no less.

Han and Corbett's presentation looked at how travel management specialist Concur Technologies Inc. supported and promoted the shift to a self-service business analytics culture.

Han, a senior manager of business intelligence with Concur, said his company's approach was to start with "quick wins so [self-service users] could actually create something that produces value right away without having to wait six months to a year." One such "quick win" was Concur's Client Realization Dashboard, which -- fast forwarding 14 months -- is also its most-used dashboard.

There's a reason for that.

"We bill on a subscription basis ... [and] we need to understand how much our customers are using our products. It's important for us ... and they want to know, too," says Han. "What this report shows is how many transactions our customer does have compared to what they've committed to buy."

Insight into customer utilization permits Concur's sales team to intervene proactively if a customer is under-utilizing a service for which they've paid. This keeps customers invested, involved, and happy, he says.

However, Concur's sales reps can also intervene if a customer is close to exceeding a pre-paid utilization rate. In that case, Concur's sales team can up-sell on existing services and, in some cases, cross-sell on other services, too. "We've actually attributed to this dashboard about $10 million [in new sales] in 2015," said Han.

Han enlisted the help of Viztric to help Concur give its self-service users most of what they wanted. The trick, says Ted Corbett, CEO and founder of Viztric, is to promote the self-service use case while practicing reasonable governance.

In Concur's case there was an extra (not-unfamiliar) challenge, Corbett explains: bridging the divide between the line of business and IT. Because the business had gone around IT, "that sort of fed a little bit of a culture of competitiveness," he said. "When David came into the organization, [there was the expectation of] 'What do you [want to] do? Pick a side. He didn't."

Instead, Corbett said, Han worked with Viztric to figure out how to do both. "How do you do both? What ... can [we] do to get data in a good place? How do you [expose business people] to the [governed] BI pipeline [and] at the same time enable them to serve themselves?" Corbett said.

"It's really the combination of those two things: having a strong, BI-centric view to get data into the right hands, and a strong self-service capability. To do that, we needed a little help."

Concur's litany of business and IT gripes will sound familiar to most business and IT organizations. People spent too much time preparing data, typically by means of manual processes such as Excel. This produced the siloing and silo drift that are symptomatic of spreadmart use: numbers differed from person to person and -- as a function of inconsistency (in preparing data) and infrequency (in refreshing data) -- wound up differing wildly as time went on. IT, for its part, wasn't able to keep up with the demands of business consumers -- particularly for new sources of information.

One partial solution, says Corbett, was basically for IT to loosen up. Instead of enforcing draconian restrictions on access to warehouse data, IT instead made it easier for users to query against the warehouse. At the same time, IT continued to strictly ration their ability to actually land data in the warehouse.

"If you can go out and write a query to do something you need to do, great. If that needs to be automated ... you can go to David to get that capability. Having this [flexibility] … really helped to drive sort of a little bit that [self-service] culture," Corbett indicates.

This was a partial solution. It did very little to change the prevailing culture. To work that trick, Concur and Viztric developed a program to reconcile the divergent priorities of the line of business and IT. They implemented an agile software development life cycle -- and embedded business analysts in Concur's fortnightly agile sprints. They sought to educate business people about BI and data warehousing basics -- while also promoting access to the warehouse via the self-service experience. Concur even has a weekly business intelligence seminar, says Han: It's called BI 101.

"It's just kind of education, getting people familiar with the data we have. There's also SQL 101," Han explains, noting that Concur also maintains a dedicated BI information website consisting of data definitions, a data dictionary, an overview of data warehousing and BI, and links to external websites. "It talks about the BI scripting process. [It's] basically kind of a clearing house for BI. [It's] content for people who are just starting to join the program" as well as for BI veterans.

The result is a more cooperative culture, Corbett argues. "We're not stuck in the politics," he notes. "When there was a BI-IT food fight, we were able to solve it."

[Editor's note: this article has been edited slightly since its original post.]

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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