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What Is Self-Service Business Intelligence and, Is It for You?


 John Howard
John Howard

Self-service Business Intelligence (BI) is a trend with a somewhat vague definition. In the most general sense, self-service BI tasks are those that business users carry out themselves instead of passing them on to IT for fulfillment.

The aim is to give the users of BI tools more freedom and responsibility at the same time. At its heart lies the notion of user independence and self-sufficiency when it comes to the use of enterprise information, which leads to a decentralisation of BI in the organisation.

Beyond this rather broad definition, self-service BI has many facets. Its meaning depends very much on the specific requirements of particular user roles. For each role, self-service BI can help users accomplish various tasks.

For example, casual BI users often only need to be able to filter and group data. In the very same environment, power users or business analysts might have to integrate local data from different sources on their own so they can quickly build or enhance existing reports. Therefore, the need for self-service within a BI environment varies according to user requirements.

Typical users can be assigned to three roles which, in reality, overlap and change according to the task at hand:

• Casual or standard users make up roughly 70 percent of all BI users. Usually, they have a  rather limited BI skillset which corresponds with their straightforward requirements. Therefore, analysis, dynamic reports and dashboards are sufficient to cover their self-service BI needs in most cases.

• Power users make up around 25 percent of all users (typically much less in larger BI environments). They are skilled BI users who need a lot of flexibility and functionality for their daily work with data to answer their business problems. Suitable self-service tools allow them not only to analyze data but to change existing (or even create new) reports and dashboards from scratch.

• Business Analysts

About 1 to 5 percent of all BI users can be described as business analysts. These are the users with the most advanced BI skills and requirements. They have the highest demand for flexibility and functionality in their self-service BI solutions. For them, self-service must cover tasks like data exploration, modeling and deploying a sandbox environment for special use cases.

Business User Requirements
As described above, the requirements of business users for self-service are extremely diverse and range from free analysis and modification of reports to integration of local data and even to changing semantic models. These requirements can be categorised as follows:

Modification of Reports and Dashboards The use of self-service business intelligence tools enables business users to modify reports and dashboards. Users can filter or produce reports visualising their key indicators in the most meaningful way. They can independently create analyses specially addressing their particular needs and therefore derive new insight from relevant business processes. Furthermore, reports can easily be adapted. In this way, self-service functions provide users with a higher level of flexibility in the creation of analysis and reports.

Creation of Ad Hoc Reports and Dashboards
The creation of reports and dashboards no longer needs to be the sole task of IT. Thanks to intuitive tools and predefined report templates and dashboards objects, power users can create ad hoc reports and dashboards to support other end users (usually within their line of business) themselves.

Integration of Private, Local Data
A further requirement often associated with the self-service philosophy is the integration of private, local data into existing reports, analyses or data models. Such data can come from Excel documents, flat files or other external sources.

Self-service functions help business users to quickly integrate data into reports. Local data can be used to extend the information delivered by the data warehouse limiting the pressure and workload on data management.

Modification or Creation of Data Models
For power users or business analysts in certain environments, self-service must provide the possibility to modify or produce data models independently. Business users act as ‘data modelers’, adapting their semantic model to a business department’s needs without relying on IT or BICC involvement. Modeling can take place in a metadata layer, a database or a so-called ‘sandbox’ (a confined environment). Each company should define its own data management strategy to determine the best approach to be used.

Why Is Self-Service BI So Important
In many companies, business intelligence is traditionally based on a central data warehouse or centrally deployed data marts. However, the methods, architectures and software solutions that have been considered best practice in data warehousing for a long time are now insufficient to meet the growing needs of many of today’s companies.

One of the reasons why companies increasingly adopt self-service solutions is to address the challenge of business departments to have access to data and information anytime and anywhere. To keep ahead of the competition, companies need to act as quickly as possible on new insights gleaned from analytics. Traditional BI delivery models, still suitable for many situations, cannot offer the level of agility and efficiency that quickly changing requirements demand. Since data volumes and sources are growing all the time, an iterative approach (i.e., trial and error) to analysis is required to find new promising business use cases and to leverage the full economic value of the data at hand.

As a result, demand for simple, quick and user-friendly BI software solutions is still on the rise and has been for years. Enterprises are striving to enable business users to build or design their queries, reports, interfaces and even data models. Power users are even compiling their dashboards using layout components from different sources, adjusting and combining them for their own use and more often for the needs of their teams.

The Promised Benefits of Self-Service BI
Self-service BI can offer many advantages to business users drowning in data but starved of information. The central promise of self-service is to improve agility and flexibility in business departments by increasing user independence from IT departments. At the same time, IT’s workload for simple tasks is reduced, enabling resource-drained IT departments to focus on tasks with a higher value add for their organisation (e.g. modeling user-friendly data marts).

The flexibility self-service BI gives users when working with new or existing information is highly valuable. Used correctly, self-service BI enables business users to create the specific reports they need to tackle challenging business problems in a timely fashion.

The reduced dependence on external resources allows business users to produce information and insight far more efficiently. Efficiency is gained mostly by skipping the tedious translation process for business requirements. On the other hand, companies can glean insight from data efficiently by allowing iterative processes that are not possible in traditional environments. In this way, companies can make sound decisions based on data quicker than before, to outpace their competition. At the same time, IT staff don’t have to deal with constantly changing requests from other departments for new queries and reports. Liberated from these responsibilities, they can devote their working time to other more productive tasks.

Smoothstream Business Intelligence will be happy to assist you in exploring general Business Analytics and Self-Service Business Intelligence further.  


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