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Understanding the Self-Service Market

How to ensure a successful deployment of BI self-service solutions.

By Lyndsay Wise, President, WiseAnalytics

Editor's note: Lyndsay Wise is sharing her knowledge about self-service BI at the TDWI World Conference in Boston (October 20-25, 2013). In the session, The Promise of Self-Service BI and Agility: Separating Fact from Fiction, Wise will identify the requirements for self-service BI and agility as well as the tools organizations need to make BI more agile.

The term self-service is generally used to denote ease of use, high levels of flexibility, broad interactivity, direct access to data, and freedom from IT. Each of these aspects provides a glimpse into self-service BI, but none deciphers what self-service means to business and technical users nor understand the implications of its deployment. The reality is that there is still considerable confusion within the marketplace as to what is and isn't self-service and how to leverage BI technologies to empower both business and technical users.

This article discusses why it is important for businesses to be cognizant of the differences in self-service solutions to help ensure successful BI deployments.

In essence, three types of self-service BI access exist.

  • The first is the one commonly referred to that targets business users with the goal of expanding BI use and general access to valuable information across the organization.

  • The second leverages business analysts and those who adopt the super-user role within the organization.

  • The third targets BI developers and those who will be creating the end-user experience for business and technical users. In some cases, this might include super-users who assume the role of both consumer and creator; in other cases, it refers to IT developers working on BI-related projects.

Empowering the Business User

The goal of any BI solution is to empower decisionmakers to become more effective. Until recently, this was almost impossible without specified training and an intricate understanding of underlying data -- not necessarily where it resides or the technical constructs, but definitely how data sources interrelate. Although this is the case with many decisionmakers, there are others within your organization that may not have an intimate relationship with their data but will know the targets they need to reach, what metrics they require, and some of the performance gaps that exist within your organization. Giving people the tools to access information that was previously unavailable in an intuitive way is the goal of self-service BI and business user empowerment.

Consequently, self-service BI of this level gives any BI user the ability to create their own dashboards and access relevant information. The level of interactivity, ease of use, and data access flexibility will differ depending on the solution provider, but the goal is the same -- empowerment, visibility, and autonomy. The advent of self-service has enabled a broader variety of people to adopt BI and interact with information in a way that wouldn't have been possible beforehand.

Leveraging Super-user Insights

Business analysts and super-users have always been the main target audience of BI application use. This doesn't mean that solutions were intuitive for them to interact with. To help these users gain more from their BI use, solutions have been developed that are termed self-service and that provide the flexibility to develop dashboards and analytics from scratch. This means that they are given a blank slate and can add and join data as needed to create visualizations they require.

In some cases, solutions have been revamped to enable drag-and-drop capabilities, whereas in others the look and feel resembles social media type interactions. The goal of these solutions is to enable complex analyses but to not have to worry about data access. Because many analysts respond to ad hoc queries and delve into data on a deep and complex level, they need to ability to add, join, change, and create algorithms as needed, without making requests for data access or having limited access to edit reports or dashboards.

Making BI Development More Intuitive

Although there is a constant market push to sideline IT (at least in some marketing literature and some of the arguments for both self-service and cloud BI), in many cases IT departments are still developing and deploying BI to the organization. Sometimes, they provide self-service access to business units, and sometimes they deliver ready-to-use solutions that address specific business questions, challenges, or provide metrics management. Either way, developers require an easy, effective, and quick way to develop BI. Because much of BI delivery focuses on managing data assets, it's important to make all of the other tasks involved in delivering BI to users on time as easy and effortless as possible.

The goal of self-service in this context is the ability to provide IT developers and others in charge of developing BI applications for others with drag and drop, easy to use interfaces. The ability to develop solutions quickly and interact with data to make additions and changes when needed can make the difference in business user perceptions between satisfaction and dissatisfaction with having to access BI through IT management. This is why some organizations select departmental BI and try to manage their own tools. The problem with this is that they may not have access to all information and the quality and validity of the data touch points become hard to manage.

Self-service BI: The Bottom Line

The term "self-service BI" is used interchangeably between all three options we've mentioned. The only way to understand what a specific solution offering is referring to when labeling their offering self-service is to ask the right questions and learn as much as possible about the solution being evaluated. Making sure that the self-service required in your organization is the one being offered can be the difference between BI success and frustration and can affect overall adoption.

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