TDWI Spring '08: Line-of-business users want access, but self-service is only a short-term solution.
Posted May 15, 2008
CHICAGO -- Can mainstream line-of-business users really access the power of business intelligence (BI) all by themselves? Self-service BI may be upon us, according to the keynote address at The Data Warehousing Institute's World Conference here today, but in order to be beneficial -- in order for an enterprise to make the most of an investment -- self-service BI has to be used in conjunction with tailored BI. "We know in life that too much of a good thing can make you sick," said Wayne Eckerson, director of research for TDWI. "Are we eager to embrace self-service BI because it truly meets the need of our user community or because it offloads the unwanted work of creating custom reports?"
The data warehouse, Eckerson told the crowd, was originally designed merely as a repository of information, a single site to be used for the purposes of querying and reporting. Theoretically, at least, the warehouse freed technology staffers from report-generation and provided business users with direct, unfettered access to data for querying and reporting, Eckerson recalled. "But things didn't pan out as planned: While some users took the bait and ran with it, most still continued to request reports from IT," he said. Referring to the common programming language for querying a database, he added that "running SQL directly against a data warehouse proved to be very challenging for most people -- instead of the data warehouse reducing the backlog, [the backlog] became bigger."
The next step in the evolution was to provide business users with self-service BI tools, Eckerson added. Many BI professionals, though, were -- and remain -- oblivious to the needs of users, recommending tools that are impossible for the nontechnology professional to use. "Most users can't create reports, don't know what they really want, and, when they run into difficulty, they're still going to ask IT for help," Eckerson said. Users don't want to form queries to retrieve format data. They just want to monitor and analyze data to make decisions. Creating reports requires several steps -- and most of those steps, Eckerson said, are beyond the ability of line-of-business users.
Additionally, many reports are little more than small variations of existing ones, and some reports are seldom if ever used -- yet the vast spectrum of reports created by a typical enterprise consumes huge amounts of storage space. Part of the problem, Eckerson said, is that any given company's power users -- few in number, but significant in terms of the number of reports they create -- waste a lot of time and money. "Power users wield way too much influence over the selection of BI tools," he said. Self-service BI can provide a short-term solution -- but companies can't ignore large-scale corrective measures (i.e., deleting no-longer-needed reports), Eckerson said. "Self-service may be a way to buy you some time, but over-reliance [on self-service] will hurt you."
Therefore, Eckerson recommends what he called tailored delivery -- a layered information-delivery system tailored to a specific group of users. The basic process is simple: A centralized group should develop a set of interactive reports for specific domains of the business. Each tailored report -- similar to a dashboard or scorecard -- would contain about 20 dimensions and 12 metrics. Rather than performing ad hoc queries against the entire warehouse, users' access would be limited by a predefined set of metrics, attributes, and filters. The BI team would update the tailored reports/dashboards as needed, including the deletion of outdated or superfluous ones.
The tailored reports would address some 80 percent of the questions for 80 percent of the users, Eckerson said, adding that each tailored report could conceivably replace dozens -- or even hundreds -- of traditional ad hoc reports. But for tailored reports to provide those efficiencies, the technology staff must be involved from inception and must understand users and business processes in order to develop the most effective solutions.
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