As a result, many IT staffs face growing backlogs of information requests from increasingly frustrated end users. But self-service features such as browser-based interfaces, interactive graphics, drop-down lists and software guides can help. They buffer less-technical end users from the complexities of the underlying data infrastructure. This frees up IT professionals from having to spend "an inordinate amount of time" responding to requests for new data, new views or updated report formats, Kobielus says.
Consider the case of OraSure Technologies Inc. Before turning to self-service BI, the medical device maker's two-person data team couldn't keep up with end users' information demands, according to Scott Baker, Bethlehem, Pa.-based OraSure's manager of SAP systems. "We needed to get data into the hands of users in departments like sales, finance and budgeting, and give them tools so they could analyze data themselves," he says. "We used to create standard reports, and people were always saying they needed more information -- this but not that."
End users at OraSure can now create their own dashboards "on the fly," using SAP BusinessObjects' self-service system, Edge, Baker says. And BusinessObjects' Explorer module "lets you select the filters and data you want, and then presents it to you graphically," he says. End users can also create reports using SAP Crystal Reports or Microsoft Excel.
"BusinessObjects is good at buffering users from the technical layer," Baker says. For example, users "don't see [data] field definitions but terms they work with in their jobs, like 'quantity shipped.' "
The payback? End users have generated more than 160 reports themselves, Baker says. "That's 160 reports the IT group didn't have to generate," he adds.
A broad user base
Self-service BI isn't just for the "average" end user with limited technical and analytical expertise, says Forrester analyst Boris Evelson. Business analysts need to do predictive analytics, multidimensional querying and data mining. Knowledge workers and power users want to do ad hoc querying and generate their own reports and views. Self-service BI platforms enable them to do that while shielding them from the underlying data infrastructure, so they don't have to keep asking IT for help.
Flexibility was key at IXI Corp., a unit of Atlanta-based Equifax Inc. that provides risk and performance management consulting services. With IXI's old BI system, it was too difficult to make any changes to a data report, says Russ Ayres, the company's senior vice president of customer insight. Requests for changes meant that the underlying data models had to be revised and then approved, which was a slow process. Hard-coded data structures weren't cutting it with IXI's customers, whose data needs change on a daily basis, Ayres explains.
The company addressed these challenges by using Tibco Software Inc.'s Spotfire. IXI analysts use Spotfire to do rapid and flexible data querying across multiple data sources, Ayres says. On average, creating a new view takes a quarter of the time it used to, he adds, "so we're about four times as productive."
Despite their enthusiasm for self-service BI, IT executives acknowledge that easy-to-use BI tools can be dangerous because of the power they put in the hands of end users.
Data governance, security, and centralized monitoring and control of user interactions are critical for any BI system, but particularly for self-service setups that give less-technical end users direct access to the corporate data infrastructure.