Self-Service BI

Traditional BI approaches and technologies — even when using the latest technology, best practices, and architectures — almost always have a serious side effect: a constant backlog of BI requests. Enterprises where IT addresses more than 20% of BI requirements will continue to see the snowball effect of an ever-growing BI requests backlog. Why? Because:

  • BI requirements change faster than an IT-centric support model can keep up. Even with by-the-book BI applications, firms still struggle to turn BI applications on a dime to meet frequently changing business requirements. Enterprises can expect a life span of at least several years out of enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), human resources (HR), and financial applications, but a BI application can become outdated the day it is rolled out. Even within implementation times of just a few weeks, the world may have changed completely due to a sudden mergers and acquisitions (M&A) event, a new competitive threat, new management structure, or new regulatory reporting requirements.
  • Conventional waterfall SDLC approaches are poorly suited for BI. The traditional waterfall methodology for the software development life cycle (SDLC) calls for collecting user requirements, transforming them into specifications, and then turning these specifications over to developers. While this approach is often successful for traditional enterprise application implementations, it won't work for the majority of BI requirements. The "build it, and they will come" model is directly applicable — and recommended — for BI, as only once an end user sees something she can touch and feel and play around with will the real requirements materialize. "What are the key requirements that your BI application must address?" is a typical IT question. "It must address everything, because I don't know what kinds of reports I'll have to produce and what kinds of analysis I'll have to perform tomorrow," is, unfortunately, a typical answer.
  • Business and IT do not always see eye to eye on BI applications and projects. In the eyes of business executives, managers, and individual contributors, nothing is more important than business requirements. Furthermore, they want their BI business requirements addressed according to their, not IT's, schedule so that they can continually address their clients' needs and avoid falling behind the competition. IT, on the other hand, is charged with maintaining law and order and insists on sticking to standard BI tools and following approved software development and project methodologies.

Forrester by no means advocates that firms transfer complex, mission-critical, enterprisewide BI applications — especially those that carry external exposure or other operational risk — into the hands of non-IT professionals. However, anecdotal evidence leads us to believe that with the proper BI application portfolio classification, no more than 20% of all BI applications should fall into this restricted category. We maintain that in an ideal BI environment, 80% of all BI requirements should be carried out by the business users themselves.

But what does it take for a BI tool or application to enable all types of users (casual users, power users, and executives) to self-serve for new queries, reports, analytics, and dashboards? "Intuitive" and "user friendly" are subjective terms. A point-and-click and drag-and-drop graphical user interface (GUI) may be a nirvana of intuitiveness to an information management pro who started his computer career working with punch cards or green-screen terminals, but to a younger generation of knowledge workers brought up on search GUI from Google and social media GUI from Facebook, a point-and-click GUI may not be as obvious or natural. With that in mind, in our latest Forrester Wave "Self-Service BI Platforms, Q2 2012," we evaluated:

  • Actuate
  • IBM Cognos
  • Information Builders WebFOCUS
  • Microsoft
  • MicroStrategy
  • Oracle OBIEE
  • Panorama Software
  • QlikView
  • SAP BusinessObjects
  • SAS
  • Tableau Software
  • TIBCO Spotfire

against the following key self-service BI capabilities, such as:

  • Automodeling of raw data
  • Ability to create calculated measures and metrics on the fly
  • Collaboration between business users and IT staff
  • Data virtualization and drill anywhere
  • Prompting for columns at runtime
  • Search-like GUI
  • Application sandboxes
  • Write back for "what if" analysis
  • Exploration and discovery on raw, unmodeled data
  • Optional semantic layer
  • Migration of self-serviced BI app to production

Please read the complete report for more details. As always, we welcome all comments so that the next Forrester Wave will be even better. Please look for more upcoming BI Waves on Data Visualization, Mobile BI, Cloud BI and Enterprise BI Platforms in Q3 and Q4 2012.


It's in part about letting go...

Agree, and this further supports the BT view I share that technology departments need to provide the right technical capability followed by guiderails and governance structures and once this is done, work to get out of the way of their business getting after the information they need to deliver business results. @Bombaygiraffe

Great blog; agree, evidence

Great blog; agree, evidence is all around us.

Going beyond these typical self service capabilities, should processes / our work space not be context aware enough to provide the most useful / relevant real time analytics and decision support constructs, exposing the relevant BI for the task at hand and possibly no more; guiding the consumer on concepts such as next best action, using predictive, learning alogrithums so that I and the business benefit from the wider internal and external environment. Is this not the ultimate consumer self service experience; highly distributed, but benefiting from the overall holistic framework. These emergent technologies are referred to as Intelligent Business Operations. Where do these sit in your spectrum? Are they the next stage of maturity?

Agree wholeheartedly that

Agree wholeheartedly that context awareness is huge for self service. I wanted to include that but struggled with the fact that it still requires a lot of integration (embeding BI into workflows and apps) by and reliance on IT. In this particular doc i wanted to concentrate on what is it that biz users can do with little or no IT involvement. But, again, you are absolutely right, perhaps context awareness should'be been there.

The capability of

The capability of self-service cloud BI tools continues to rapidly improve and evolve. Business users are definitely interested in creating new reports or analyses themselves without having to send "IT" a request. However, in the work we do with our customers helping them leverage and integrate siloed data sources within their enterprise....we find that a lot of the challenges are in integrating, preparing and modeling the data in order that it can be reported on and analyzed. This isn't what business users want to spend their time doing and tools that "automatically connect to any data source" don't really live up to that expectation. Additionally the source systems are themselves evolving and it needs someone to track that, make any adjustments and also make available any new data elements for use by the business users. In a related note...we're also finding that for companies who haven't started to make the transition to the cloud, BI is becoming the need that helps them take that first step. "Un-trapping" siloed data, moving it to the cloud and enabling companies to leverage that via analytics or apps is a growing need.

BI Collaboration

I’m interested in opinions & approaches for how we allow the people in our businesses collaborate on BI. At the very least we need people to be able to point out and or explain anomalies in the BI chart or graph as a positive human feedback loop to our BI outputs. Thoughts welcome here or @Bombaygiraffe

Great blog Boris,And I agree

Great blog Boris,

And I agree also with Jonathan Marcer and your comments re context awareness to support the “80% self service business BI user” linking his/her outcomes to a risk and performance predictive algorithm, Best-In-Class competitive intelligence metrics database and leading indicators able to show the impact of his/her decisions across the value chain.
Jorge Tabacman

Most of the tools you

Most of the tools you evaluated are ill-suited to be used in the capacity you advocate. Curious why SaaS vendors like Domo, GoodData, Birst and PivotLink weren't evaluated?

It's purely a capacity

It's purely a capacity limitation. We can only review 10-15 vendors in a Wave and vendors with large market presence take priority. Having said that I am planning a separate Cloud BI SaaS Wave where some of the vendors you mentioned will be evaluated. I have to push back on your "ill-suited" comment - our evaluation proved otherwise: half of the vendors ended up in the Leaders category and half in the Strong Performers category. You may be looking at/familiar with older versions of these products. Thanks for the comment/question!

Business Purposes

According to me, BI can be applied to the following business purposes, and self service order to drive business value. Keep it up.

Patricia Hall - Mobile Application Development India