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Does Self-Service Business Intelligence Herald the End of IT?

The changing role of the IT department in modern organizations.

By Saar Bitner, VP of Marketing, SiSense

The IT department has traditionally been seen as the gatekeeper between an organization's business professionals and the technological tools and products used by that organization. Within this traditional view, the IT department is responsible for both implementing the technological framework in terms of hardware and software, and in most cases also for utilizing these tools to get solutions to specific issues as defined by the business side.

However, today technology is moving in a different direction, with newer products produced with the intention (or at least the pretense) of being fully serviceable out of the box –for the computer-savvy and the non-technical crowd alike. In the software world, this is expressed in the tendency for new releases to be labeled "self-service tools" and the growing acceptance of BYOD (bring your own device) policies are liberating employees from their dependence on IT-provided equipment.

In this state of affairs, one might think that in the future the role of IT would become completely redundant: if the non-techies can use self-service software on their own devices (which they are assumed to be reasonably convenient with), will organizations no longer have any use for IT?

This is not the case. IT will continue to play an important role in the future of most organizations. However, the role of the IT department is changing from being responsible for providing specific answers to enabling the business users to reach their own answers. To exemplify this, let's look at the way business intelligence has developed over the past few years.

IT and Business Intelligence

As a broad term describing data storage, database management, querying, analysis, and producing reports, business intelligence has always been an IT-centric field. The need to efficiently manage large amounts of data and ensure this data is actually usable (i.e., that answers to organizational questions can be derived from it in reasonable timeframes), was invariably seen as requiring particular technical expertise, as well as the need to select and maintain proprietary hardware.

Tools such as Microsoft Excel allowed users with a narrower technical understanding to also perform basic analytics and reporting tasks. However, the restricted capabilities of these software tools (in terms of their limited ability to handle larger data sets and their inability to join data from different sources) meant that for heavy-duty BI tasks, the IT department was still required in order to implement wider-scale solutions such as RDBMS servers and OLAP cubes. Once implemented, the IT department was also required to make changes to the underlying data sources, or in order to generate new queries when reporting needs changed.

However, if you were to examine the solutions of current BI vendors, many are described as "self-service," "intuitive," or built for "anyone in the company." Dashboard reporting platforms promise minimal hardware requirements and multi-device capability, so if users can access their business intelligence software from their smartphones, is IT still a necessary part of the equation?

In the real world, things are complicated by two factors. The first is that many vendors claim that their product is self-service, but are simply not presenting an accurate picture. The second is that even tools that are truly close to being fully self-service will still require IT oversight. We'll proceed to discuss both these issues.

Separating Truth from Hype

Although many tools are promoted as self-service, this doesn't necessarily mean they can really be put to valuable use by a non-technical end user. Many of these products are merely data visualization tools without any backend capabilities (i.e., they are unable to handle ETL and other aspects of data preparation and merely generated pre-calculated answers to set queries).

Other solutions do offer data preparation, but such work requires a deep knowledge of database administration and at least rudimentary querying capabilities. The 'self-service' aspect of these products is limited to the end user being able to manipulate the product's front-end -- producing dashboards and specific reports using existing data.

Yes, the business user will be able to build graphs and pie charts, but this is not real business intelligence. The Sisyphean tasks of building the database and connecting different sources will still have to be handled by IT or others with data management and database skills.

As for hardware: again, there is some confusion between dashboard reporting and data visualizations and the actual analytics capability of the software solution. Dashboards might be viewable from any device -- but most BI solutions still require abundant computational resources to handle the actual querying and analytics performed in the background. Managing these resources brings us back to the IT department.

Self-Service does not Equal Zero IT

This is not to say that self-service BI is a myth. Certainly, some software is capable of automating most of the data preparation process and simplifying it to a level that most business users will be able to handle without requiring IT's assistance. However, this simplification has to be part of every stage of the data analytics process -- from acquiring the data to analyzing it to sustaining the database (read more about conditions for self-service here).

Hardware requirements can also be reduced, but doing so requires deviations from traditional approaches that rely exclusively on OLAP cubes and RAM memory. Current BI software should be capable of processing terabyte-scale data on commodity hardware, even if this is a far from a common occurrence.

Why is the IT department still necessary? Because even if the tools themselves are completely self-service, the IT department still plays two crucial roles in Business Intelligence:

1. Selecting the right tools for the job. To understand whether a software solution will be able to satisfy an organization's needs for scalability, extensibility, and self-service, IT knowledge is a must. Fundamental technological differences between different types of software will necessarily affect its performance in the long term. The non-techies lack the tools to evaluate this.

2. Implementing the selected software within the organization. The most advanced and automated platforms currently available can perform many of the functions that previously required IT professionals. However, when it comes to implementing this software across larger-scale organizations dealing with vast amounts of data, some preliminary work will have to be done by IT to build the foundations (in terms of cleaning and organizing the data) that automated processes require. Perhaps in the future we will see software that is clever enough to not require any human intervention regardless of the size and veracity of data, but that is not the case today.

IT won't disappear. It will simply take on a new shape: from answer providers to answer enablers; from day-to-day application of existing technological tools to implementation and discovery of new ones.

With more than a decade of marketing, sales, and product management experience, Saar Bitner is the VP of marketing at business analytics and dashboard software company Sisense and executes data-driven strategies as he makes way for the massive growth taking place. Sisense is business analytics and dashboard software that lets non-techies easily analyze and visualize big data sets from multiple sources. You can follow the author on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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