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Self-Service BI: A problem or solution?

Self-service BI is allegedly one of the current trends in Business Intelligence. I certainly hope not! That would mean that financial controlling, IT and senior management have capitulated to Business Intelligence. So how much do-it-yourself intervention can Business Intelligence handle?

The German edition of CIO magazine has made the following trend forecast (in German): Business Intelligence is focusing more and more on business users – and less on IT. I wonder if they still have any CIOs as subscribers. At the IAA international automobile show, I am going to keep a look out for posters that say “The new Raserati 420 D – Made for drivers, not the repair shop.” Time and time again, you can read that self-service BI is a key trend in Business Intelligence. Business users are tired of waiting for IT and want more independence – more or less, that is what the IT market researchers at Forrester are saying.

Emergency opening
Self-Service at an emergency Exit. It makes sense that no one wants to wait for a technician here.

When I think of self-service, I think of shelves full of cartons at Aldi, empty boxes for disposable gloves when I am getting diesel at a gas station, a shrinking network of bank branch offices, check-in booths at the airport – in other words, rationalizing at the expense of personal customer contact.

Is self-service BI the reincarnation of Excel-hell?
Experts use the term “application bottleneck” to describe the phenomenon that users do not like to wait for IT. It describes the situation in many companies – that IT doesn’t have the capacity to fulfill every business user’s request. One trend has already resulted from this situation, but that is already a while back. Controllers export SAP data to text files, import them into Excel, add corrections manually, and create a parallel data universe. One idea that isn’t completely absurd in Business Intelligence, therefore, is to replace this mess of data, reports, and KPIs with central, standardized structures for data and reports.

Is self-service BI the capitulation of financial controlling?
Who uses self-service BI? It can’t be controllers because then it would be treated as a “specialized application”. And to celebrate the fact that you can use a specialized application without needing IT assistance would be pure marketing hype and rather embarrassing. Self-service BI, therefore, is probably intended for business users from other departments who don’t get the information they need from IT or controlling. So self-service BI isn’t the capitulation of financial controlling yet, but it is remarkable nonetheless.

Im Baumarkt
If self-service BI means letting people choose the information they need from a wide selection by themselves, that would be a good thing. But it doesn’t, and it primarily implies one thing: themselves. That is not so good.

Is self-service BI the capitulation of management?
If neither IT, nor controlling, nor specialized staff can provide the necessary information, and business users are left to build and analyze their own data models, what kind of management model would provide the foundation for self-service BI? I’d say: anarchy. What kind of analyses will be made, and who will be making what types of decisions? Well, a sales director could tell an assistant to run a customer value analysis and align the sales activities based on it. As long as the sales director has enough success with his approach, he or she will gain power and counter any attacks that financial reporting makes regarding the poor coordination of report structures. However, if the sales director has no success with his approach, it will quickly become apparent that the sales management is weak. General management is now supposed to take charge without any knowledge of or power over the information structures in sales. IT and financial controlling simply wave it aside because the sales data mart is unknown territory for them as well.

Is self-service BI an immature form of Business Intelligence?
Yes, it is. If neither IT, nor controlling, nor specialized staff can provide the necessary information, and business users are left to build and analyze their own data models, management is neither supported nor driven by data. Instead, you can say that it is rather aloof to it. With luck, an employee with visionary influence will take over the leadership of Business Intelligence and will build a future BI strategy from the piecework of the past. Self-service BI is then the rather awkward trial-and-error phase on the road to maturity, in other words, the puberty stage of BI.

Is self-service BI then a problem or a solution?
It’s more of a problem than a solution, but only at a second glance. What’s wrong when IT saves work, software is as user-friendly as possible, and employees have the chance to pose wise questions themselves? First of all, if IT cannot keep up with supplying data and can direct it into structured channels, it has just dug its own grave. Sooner or later, its role will be reduced to that of a help desk. Self-service BI, therefore, is a serious warning sign as to which direction the company’s IT is heading. Secondly, Business Intelligence is an auxiliary management function – not a status symbol or job enrichment. Business Intelligence is about planning and making decisions about limited resources. The rules for doing that should reflect, transport, and implement the management concept that was laid out by the board – and that cannot be done in a state of anarchy.

If self-service BI is a type of Business Intelligence software that supports the staff of business-minded senior-management teams to do their work, I am all for it. But that’s what I call Business Intelligence software.