The traditional model for pulling answers out of your business’s various stores of data begins with a visit to the IT department. IT staff tend to be familiar with all the systems where the data you’re interested in resides—systems like your CRM, ERP, financial applications, and so on. So the designated techie will have no trouble extracting the data and using Excel or some other software to arrange it into whatever type of report seems best suited to answering your question. You in turn share that report with your colleagues, and together you use the information as the basis for your decisions about where to take the business in the future.
Sounds simple enough, but what happens when you have a follow-up question—or a series of follow-up questions? What happens when your IT staff is already working on some other important project? What if the report doesn’t present the data in a way that’s intuitively useful?
Business Intelligence tools over the past few years have been getting really slick. The static reports you used to get from the IT people have been supplanted by automatically updated dashboards, interactive displays, and visualization features like dynamic 3D maps. These tools let you pull in data from an ever-widening array of sources, both internal and external, which you can in turn analyze and present in an equally vast number of ways. And you can often do all this with little or no help from the IT department, even if you’re a CFO, CMO, or anyone else with only the most basic tech skills.
Microsoft’s Power BI and Tableau’s Business Intelligence suite are the top-rated players in the self-service BI arena, with Tableau currently enjoying the dominant position in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. What Power BI has had to recommend it in the past was its lower cost; some of the individual tools are actually available as free add-ons for Excel. But if you wanted access to the full range of Power BI tools, including sites for sharing reports, you had to sign your business up for one of the Office 365 Enterprise packages. Of course, if you were already using Office 365, this could be a really good deal. If all you wanted were the BI tools, though, the E3 package could be prohibitively expensive.
Responding to consumer feedback on this point, Microsoft released a stand-alone version of Power BI at the end of July. Now you can get the full capabilities for $9.99 per user per month, and you use a lot of the tools for free. The newly released version also features connectors that allow you to pull in data from a large and growing range of third-party sources—Marketo, Google Analytics, QuickBooks Online, Salesforce, and on and on.
The potential for discovering new insights into your business, your industry, and your customers is immense but difficult to quantify. Bringing data from Google Analytics into the BI sphere, for instance, allows you to analyze your web performance metrics in the context of a diverse array of other information. You can compare marketing data to sales figures, blog traffic to seasonal weather patterns over several geographical locations, or campaign effectiveness to quality of branding efforts on social media. The main limiting factor is how difficult it is to imagine all the possible things to compare and analyze.
The traditional model of having someone from IT pull out the data and create a report is probably on its way out, as most businesses are coming to realize how slow and inefficient it is. “The designated report writer in this scenario knows the tech stuff but not the business stuff,” Aaron Crouch, Aptera’s Business Intelligence Practice Leader explains. “Business leaders know the business stuff, but they don’t know the tech stuff. So they have to keep going back and forth, and it gets complicated and problematic.”
But are the so-called self-service BI tools at a stage where business leaders can just go around IT? “Self-service suites like Tableau and Power BI are pretty impressive,” Crouch says, “but they’re basically the front-end visualization and analysis piece—for a lot of stuff, you'll still need the system on the back-end where you actually collect and store the data.”
The beauty of the new tools is that the business community gets answers quicker, while at the same time freeing up IT people for more strategic and forward-looking projects. But IT is still responsible for collecting, storing, and securing the data that gets analyzed. Tableau and Power BI on their own usually won't be total solutions; they're rather pieces of a larger enterprise puzzle.
One of the functions self-service BI tools don't automatically perform on their own is quality control; most of the time, you'll have to know where the data is coming from and how reliable it is before you can arrive at any valid conclusions based on it. In fact, some businesses are actually getting in trouble by not taking quality into consideration. Doug Laney, research vice president at Gartner, gives a sobering assessment: “As a result of the limited governance of self-service BI implementations, we see few examples of that are materially successful—other than satisfying end-user urges for data access.”
Flashy BI tools, in other words, can be seductive. To be fair, the self-service BI services do provide tools for this kind of governance, but they also make it easy to overlook quality control altogether. This is where other pieces of the puzzle, like data warehouses, fit into the puzzle.
As the tools improve, some of the issues associated with poor quality data will probably get easier to iron out. And, as businesses move more and more of their data and workloads to the cloud, they may become less reliant on their own IT staffs to set up the proper channels to get data to the BI tools. At least for the foreseeable future, though, a comprehensive Business Intelligence solution is going to require robust collaboration between IT and end-users.
But self-service BI is really more about allowing users to do more—a lot more—with the data they have than it is about getting beyond the need to find and secure good data in the first place. And data-driven strategizing and decision-making has become so important in recent years that, not only are businesses not pulling their IT people off the projects, but they’re even hiring new types of experts like data scientists to make the most of it.
Maybe it would be better if companies like Tableau and Microsoft called their products self-service analysis and visualization instead of self-service BI. That just doesn’t have the same ring, though. Still, for most purposes, it's probably the best way to think about what self-service actually means.
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